The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ - A Devotional History of our Lord's Passion
by James Stalker
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

The words He spoke were, indeed, few; but they completely covered the case. Every word He uttered in that position was with great pain; therefore He could not say much. Besides, their very fewness imparted to them a kind of judicial dignity; as has been said, this was Christ's last will and testament. To His mother He said, "Woman, behold thy son," [4] indicating St. John with His eyes; and to the disciple He merely said, "Behold thy mother." It was simple, yet comprehensive; a plain, almost legal direction, and yet overflowing with love to both Mary and John.

It is supposed that Joseph, the husband of the Virgin, had died before our Lord's public career began, and that in Nazareth the weight of the household had fallen on the shoulders of Jesus. No doubt, during His years of preaching, He would tenderly care for His mother. But now He too was leaving her, and the widow would be without support. It was for this He had to provide.

He had no money to leave her; His earthly all, when He was crucified, consisted of the clothes He wore; and these fell to the soldiers. But it is one of the privileges of those who, though they may be poor themselves, make many rich with the gifts of truth, that they thereby win friends who are proud and eager to serve them or theirs. In committing His mother to St. John Jesus knew that the charge would be accepted not as a burden but a gift.

Why she did not go to the home of one of her other sons it is impossible to say. They were not yet believers, though soon afterwards they became so; but there may have been other reasons also, to us unknown.

At all events, it is easy to see how kind and considerate was the selection of St. John for this office. There are indications in the Gospels that St. John was wealthier, or at least more comfortable in his circumstances, than the rest of the Apostles; and this may have weighed with Jesus: He would not send His mother where she would feel herself to be a burden. It is highly probable also that St. John was unmarried. But there were deeper reasons. There was no arm on which His mother could lean so confidently as that of him who had leaned on her Son's breast. St. Peter, with his hot temper and rough fisherman's ways, would not have been nearly so eligible a choice. John and Mary were kindred spirits. They were especially one in their intense affection for Jesus. They would never tire of speaking to one another about Him. He honoured both of them in each other's eyes by giving them to one another in this way. If He gave Mary a great gift in giving her St. John for a son, He gave him no less a gift by giving him such a mother; for Mary could not but be an ornament to any home. Besides, did He not make St. John in a quite peculiar sense His own brother by substituting him in His own stead as the son of Mary?

The Evangelist says that from that hour John took her to his own home. Many have understood this to mean that he at once gently withdrew her from the spot, that she should not be agitated by seeing the death-throes of her Son, though he himself returned to Calvary. It is said by tradition that they lived together twelve years in Jerusalem, and that he refused to leave the city, even for the purpose of preaching the gospel, as long as Mary survived. Only after her death did he depart on those missionary travels which landed him in Ephesus and its neighbourhood, with which his later history is connected.


It is not difficult to read the lesson of this touching scene. From the pulpit of His cross Jesus preaches to all ages a sermon on the fifth commandment.

The heart of the mother of Jesus was pierced with a sword on account of His sufferings. It was a sharp weapon; but Mary had one thing on which to steady up her soul; it kept her calm even in the wildest moment of her grief—she knew He was innocent. He had always been pure, noble and good; she could be proud of Him even when they were crucifying Him. Many a mother's heart is pierced with anguish on account of a son's illness, or misfortunes, or early death; but she can bear it if she is not pierced with the poisoned sword. What is that? It is when she has to be ashamed of her child—when he is brought to ruin by his own misdeeds. This is a sorrow far worse than death.

How beautiful it is to see a mother wearing as her chief ornament the good name and the honourable success of a son! You who still have a mother or a father, let this be to you both a spur to exertion and a talisman against temptation. To some is accorded the rarer privilege of being able to support their parents in old age. And surely there is no sweeter memory in the world than the recollection of having been allowed to do this. "If any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to show piety at home and to requite their parents; for that is good and acceptable before God. . . . But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." [5]

But this sermon, delivered from the pulpit of the cross, has a wider range. It informs us that our Saviour has a concern for our temporal as well as for our eternal interests. Even on the cross, where He was expiating the sin of the world, He was thinking of the comfort of His widowed mother. Let the needy and the deserted take courage from this, and cast all their care upon Him, for He careth for them. It is often an astonishment to see how widows especially are helped through. When they are left, with perhaps a number of little children, it seems incomprehensible how they can get on. Yet not infrequently their families turn out better than those where the father has been spared. One reason is, perhaps, that their children feel from the first that they must take a share of the responsibility, and this makes men and women of them. But the chief reason undoubtedly is that God fulfils His own promise to be a Father to the fatherless and a Husband to the widow, and that they have not been forgotten by Him who in the hour of His absorbing agony remembered Mary.

[1] "Woman, behold thy son . . . Behold thy mother."

[2] It is not certain whether John xix. 25 describes three women or four. Is the second Salome, John's mother?

[3] Chrysostom.

[4] "Woman" may mean sadly (proleptically), "Thou hast no son now."

[5] 1 Tim. v. 6, 8.



The Seven Words from the Cross may be divided into two groups. In the first three—namely, the prayer for His crucifiers, the word to the penitent thief, and the directions about His mother—our Lord was dealing with the interests of others; in the last four, to which we now pass, He was absorbed in His own concerns. This division is natural. Many a dying man, after arranging his affairs and saying his farewells, turns his face to the wall, to encounter death and be alone with God. It was highly characteristic of Jesus, however, before turning to His own things, first to mind the things of others.

Between these two groups of sayings there seems to have elapsed a long interval. From the sixth hour to the ninth Jesus was silent. And during this interval there was darkness over all the land. Of what precise nature this atmospheric effect may have been it is impossible at this distance to say. But the Evangelists, three of whom mention it, evidently consider it to have indicated in some sense the sympathy of nature with her Lord. It was as if the sun refused to look on such a deed of shame. It may be supposed that by this weird phenomenon the noises round the cross were in some degree hushed. At length the silence was broken by Christ Himself, who, in a loud voice, gave utterance to the Fourth Word from the cross. This was a word of astonishment and agony, yet also of victory.


Of what nature had been the meditations of our Lord during the three hours of silence? Had He been in an ecstasy of communion with His heavenly Father? Not infrequently has this been vouchsafed to dying saints. And it has sometimes enabled them completely to overcome physical suffering. Martyrs have occasionally been so exalted at the last as to be able even to sing in the flames. It is with awe and astonishment we learn that the very opposite of this was the state of mind of Jesus. The word with which He burst out of the trance of silence may be taken as the index of what was going on in His mind during the preceding hours; and it is a cry out of the lowest depths of despair. Indeed, it is the most appalling sound that ever pierced the atmosphere of this earth. Familiar as it is to us, it cannot be heard by a sensitive ear even at this day without causing a cold shudder of terror. In the entire Bible there is no other sentence so difficult to explain. The first thought of a preacher, on coming to it, is to find some excuse for passing it by; and, after doing his utmost to expound it, he must still confess that it is quite beyond him. Yet there is a great reward in grappling with such difficult passages; for never does the truth impress us so profoundly as when we are made to feel that all the length which we are able to go is only into the shallows of the shore, while beyond our reach lies the great ocean.

Even in Christ's own mind the uppermost thought, when He uttered this cry, was one of astonishment. In Gethsemane, we are told, "He was sore amazed." And this is obviously the tone of this utterance also. We almost detect an accentuation of the "Thou" like that in the word with which the murdered Caesar fell. All His life Jesus had been accustomed to find Himself forsaken. The members of His own household early rejected Him. So did His fellow-townsmen in Nazareth. Ultimately the nation at large followed the same course. The multitudes that at one time followed Him wherever He went and hung upon His lips eventually took offence and went away. At last, in the crisis of His fate, one of His nearest followers betrayed Him and the rest forsook Him and fled. But in these disappointments, though He felt them keenly, He had always had one resource: He was always able, when rejected of men, to turn away from them and cast Himself with confidence on the breast of God. Disappointed of human love, He drank the more deeply of the love divine. He always knew that what He was doing or suffering was in accord with the will of God; His feelings kept constant time with the Divine heart; God's thoughts were His thoughts; He could clearly discern the divine intention leading through all the contradictions of His career to a sublime result. Therefore He could calmly say, even at the Last Supper, with reference to the impending desertion of the Twelve, "Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me." Now, however, the hour had come; and was this expectation fulfilled? They were scattered, as He had predicted, and He was left alone; but was He not alone? was the Father still with Him? His own words supply the answer: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?"


Although the state of mind of our Lord on this occasion was so different from what we know to have been His habitual mood, yet it does not stand absolutely isolated in His history. We know of at least two experiences somewhat resembling it, and these may in some degree help us to its explanation. The first overtook Him on the occasion of the visit of certain Greeks at the beginning of the last week of His life. They had desired to see Him; but, when they were introduced by Andrew and Philip, Jesus, instead of being exhilarated, as might have been expected, was overcome with a spasm of pain, and groaned, "Now is My soul troubled, and what shall I say? Father, save Me from this hour." The sight of these visitors from the outside world made Him feel how grand and how congenial to Himself would have been a worldwide mission to the heathen, such as He might have undertaken had His life been prolonged; but this was impossible, because in the flower of His age He was to die. The other occasion was the Agony of Gethsemane. A careful and reverent study will reveal that this incident was the effort by which the will of Christ rose into unity with the will of His Father. It belongs to the very essence of human nature that it must grow from stage to stage; and the perfection of our Lord, just because it was human, had to realise itself on every step of a ladder of development. He was always both perfect on the stage which He had reached, and at the same time rising to a higher stage of perfection. Sometimes the step might be more easy, at other times more difficult; the step which He had to take in Gethsemane was supremely difficult; hence the effort and the pain which it cost. It seemed, however, in Gethsemane as if He had finally conquered, and it might have been expected that the mood of weakness and darkness could not come back. Yet it was to be permitted to return once more; and on the cross the attack was far more violent and prolonged than on either of the preceding occasions. Keeping in mind the light which these two previous accesses of the same mood may cast on this one, let us draw near reverently and see how far we may be able to penetrate into the mystery.

There can be little doubt that there was a physical element in it. He had now been a considerable time on the cross; and every minute the agony was increasing. The wounds in His hands and feet, exposed to the atmosphere and the sun, grew barked and hardened; the blood, impeded in its circulation, swelled in heart and brain, till these organs were like to burst; and the slightest attempt to move the body from the one intolerable posture caused pains to shoot along the quivering nerves. Bodily suffering clouds the brain and distorts the images formed on the mirror of the mind. Even the face of God, reflected there, may be turned to a shape of terror by the fumes of physical trouble.

The horror of mortal suffering may have been greater to Jesus than to other men, because of the fineness and sensitiveness of His physical organization. His body had never been coarsened with sin, and therefore death was utterly alien to it. The stream of physical life, which is one of the precious gifts of God, had poured through His frame in abundant and sunny tides. But now it was being withdrawn, and the counterflow had set in. The unity of a perfect nature was being violently torn asunder; and He felt Himself drifting away from the living world, which to Him had been so full of God's presence and goodness, into the pale, cold regions of inanity.[2] He did not belong to death; yet He was falling into death's grasp. No angel came to rescue Him; God interposed with no miracle to arrest the issue; He was abandoned to His fate.

There was more, however, it is easy to see, in the agony which prompted this cry than the merely physical. If in Gethsemane we have the effort of the will of Jesus, as it raised itself into unity with the will of the Father, we here see the effort of His mind as, amidst the confusion and contradictions of the cross, it finally rose into unity with the mind of God. This intellectual character of His pain is indicated by the word "Why." It is always painful when the creature has to say Why to the Creator. We believe that He is Sovereign of the world and Guide of our destiny, and that He urges forward the course of things in the reins of infinite wisdom and love. But, while this is the habitual and healthy sense of the human mind, especially when it is truly religious, there are crises, both in the great and in the little world, when faith fails. The world is out of joint; everything appears to have gone wrong; the reins seem to have slipped out of the hands of God and the chariot to be plunging forward uncontrolled; the course of things seems no more to be presided over by reason, but by a blind, if not a cruel fate. It is then that the poor human mind cries out Why. The entire book of Job is such a cry. Jeremiah cried Why to God in terms of startling boldness. In mortal pain, in bewildering disappointments, in bereavements which empty the heart and empty the world, millions have thus cried Why in every age. It seems an irreligious word. When Jeremiah says, "O Lord, Thou hast deceived me and I was deceived," or when Job demands, "Why did I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?" it sounds like the voice of a blasphemer. But indeed it is into the most earnest and delicate souls that this despair is likeliest to slip. The ignorant, the frivolous and the time-serving are safe from it; for they are well enough satisfied with things as they are. Callous minds learn to be content without explanations. But the more deeply pious a mind is, the more jealous must it be for justice and the glory of God; the appearance of unwisdom in the government of the world shocks it; to be able to trace the footsteps of God's care is a necessity of its existence. Hence its pain when these evidences disappear. Now, all the contradictions and confusions of the world were focussed on Golgotha. Injustice was triumphant; innocence was scorned and crushed; everything was exactly the reverse of what it ought to have been. And all the millions of Whys which have risen from agonized souls, jealous for the honour of God but perplexed by His providence, were concentrated in the Why of Christ.

How near to us He is! Never perhaps in His whole life did He so completely identify Himself with His poor brethren of mankind. For here He comes down to stand by our side not only when we have to encounter pain and misfortune, bereavement and death, but when we are enduring that pain which is beyond all pains, that horror in whose presence the brain reels, and faith and love, the eyes of life, are put out—the horror of a universe without God, a universe which is one hideous, tumbling, crashing mass of confusion, with no reason to guide and no love to sustain it.

Can we advance a step farther into the mystery? The deepest question of all is whether the desertion of Jesus was subjective or objective—that is, whether He had only, on account of bodily weakness and a temporary obscuration of the inward vision, a sense of being abandoned, or whether, in any real sense, God had actually forsaken Him. Of course we are certain that God was infinitely well pleased with Him—never more so, surely, than when He was sacrificing Himself to the uttermost on behalf of others. But was there, at the same time, any outflashing against Him of the reverse side of the Divine nature—the lightning of the Divine wrath? Calvary was an awful revelation of the human heart, whose enmity was directed straight against the perfect revelation of the love of God in Christ. There the sin of man reached its climax and did its worst. What was done there against Christ, and against God in Him, was a kind of embodiment and quintessence of the sin of the whole world. And undoubtedly it was this which was pressing on Jesus; this was "the travail of His soul." He was looking close at sin's utmost hideousness; He was sickened with its contact; He was crushed with its brutality—crushed to death. Yet this human nature was His own; He was identified with it—bone of its bone, flesh of its flesh; and, as in a reprobate family an exquisitely delicate and refined sister may feel the whole weight of the debt and shame of the household to lie on herself, so He felt the unworthiness and hopelessness of the race as if they were His own; and, like the scapegoat on whose head the sins of the community were laid in the old dispensation, He went out into the land of forsakenness.

Thus far we may proceed, feeling that we have solid ground beneath our feet. But many have ventured farther. Even Luther and Calvin allowed themselves to say that in the hours which preceded this cry our Lord endured the torments of the damned. And Rambach, whose Meditations on the Sufferings of Christ have fed the piety of Germany for a hundred years, says: "God was now dealing with Him not as a loving and merciful father with his child, but as an offended and righteous judge with an evildoer. The heavenly Father now regards His Son as the greatest sinner to be found beneath the sun, and discharges on Him the whole weight of His wrath." But, if we were to make use of such language, we should be venturing beyond our depth. Much to be preferred is the modest comment of the holy and learned Bengel on our text: "In this fourth word from the cross our Saviour not only says that He has been delivered up into the hands of men, but that He has suffered at the hands of God something unutterable." Certainly there is here something unutterable. We have ventured into the mystery as far as we are able; but we know that we are yet only in the shallows near the shore; the unplumbed ocean lies beyond.


It may appear an affectation to speak of this as in any sense a cry of victory. Yet, if what has just been said be true, this, which was the extreme moment of suffering, was also the supreme moment of achievement. As the flower, by being crushed, yields up its fragrant essence, so He, by taking into His heart the sin of the world, brought salvation to the world.

In point of fact, all history since has shown that it was in this very hour that Christ conquered the heart of mankind. Long before He had said, "I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me." And the correctness of this anticipation is matter of history. Christ on the cross has ever since then been the most fascinating object in the eyes of mankind. The mind and heart of humanity have been irresistibly attracted to Him, never weary of studying Him. And the utterance of this cry is the culminating moment to which the inquiring mind specially turns. Theology has its centre in the cross. Sometimes, indeed, it has been shy of it, and has divagated from it in wide circles; but, as soon as it becomes profound and humble again, it always returns.

Yes, when it becomes humble! Penitent souls are drawn to the cross, and the deeper their penitence the more are they at home. They stand beside the dying Saviour and say, This is what we ought to have suffered; our life was forfeited by our guilt; thus our blood deserved to flow; we might justly have been banished forever into the desert of forsakenness. But, as they thus make confession, their forfeited life is given back to them for Christ's sake, the peace of God is shed abroad in their hearts, and the new life of love and service begins. The supreme Christian rite brings us to this very spot and to this very moment: "This is My blood of the New Testament, shed for many for the remission of sins."

It was not, however, merely in this profound sense that this fourth word of the dying Saviour was a cry of victory. It was so, also, because it liberated Him from His depression. It has been said that when, at His encounter with the Greeks, He groaned, "Father, save Me from this hour," He immediately checked Himself with "Father, glorify Thy name"; likewise that in Gethsemane, when He prayed, "If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me," He hastened to add, "Nevertheless, not My will, but Thine be done"; but that on this occasion the cry of despair was followed by no word of resignation. This, however, is a mistake. The cry itself, though an utterance of despair, yet involved the strongest faith. See how He lays hold of the Eternal with both hands: "My God, My God!" It is a prayer: a thousand times He had turned to this resource In days of trial; and He does so in this supreme trouble. To do so cures despair. No one is forsaken who can pray, "My God." As one in deep water, feeling no bottom, makes a despairing plunge forward and lands on solid ground, so Jesus, in the very act of uttering His despair, overcame it. Feeling forsaken of God, He rushed into the arms of God; and these arms closed round Him in loving protection. Accordingly, as the darkness, which had brooded over all the land, disappeared at the ninth hour, so His mind emerged from eclipse; and, as we shall see, His last words were uttered in His usual mood of serenity.

[1] "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?"

[2] Some of the Fathers thought of the separation of the divine from the human nature as taking place now.



The fourth word from the cross we looked upon both as the climax of the struggle which had gone on in the mind of the divine Sufferer during the three hours of silence and darkness which preceded its utterance and as the liberation of His mind from that struggle. This view seems to be confirmed by the terms in which St. John introduces the Fifth Word—"After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished,[2] that the Scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst."

The phrase, "that the Scripture might be fulfilled," is usually connected with the words, "I thirst," as if the meaning were that He had said this fifth word in fulfilment of some prediction that He would do so; and the Old Testament is ransacked, without much result, for the prophetic words which may be supposed to be alluded to. It is better, however, to connect the phrase with what goes before—"Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished." It was only when His work, appointed by God and prescribed in Scripture, was completed, that He became sufficiently conscious of His bodily condition to say, "I thirst." Intense mental preoccupation has a tendency to cause the oblivion of bodily wants. Even the excitement of reading a fascinating book may keep at a distance for hours the sense of requiring sleep or food; and it is only when the reader comes out of the trance of absorption that he realises how spent he is. During the temptation in the wilderness Jesus was too absorbed to be aware of His bodily necessities; but, when the spiritual strain was removed, He "was afterward an hungered."

In the present instance, when He came out of His spiritual trance, it was thirst He became conscious of. I remember once talking with a German student who had served in the Franco-Prussian War. He was wounded in an engagement near Paris, and lay on the field unable to stir. He did not know exactly what was the nature of his wound, and he thought that he might be dying. The pain was intense; the wounded and dying were groaning round about him; the battle was still raging; and shots were falling and tearing up the ground in all directions. But after a time one agony, he told me, began to swallow up all the rest, and soon made him forget his wound, his danger and his neighbours. It was the agony of thirst. He would have given the world for a draught of water. This was the supreme distress of crucifixion. The agonies of the horrible punishment were of the most excruciating and complicated order; but, after a time, they all gathered into one central current, in which they were lost and swallowed up—that of devouring thirst; and it was this that drew from our Lord the fifth word.[3]


This was the only cry of physical pain uttered by our Lord on the cross. As was remarked in a previous chapter, it was not uncommon for the victims of crucifixion, when the ghastly operation of nailing them to the tree began, to writhe and resist, and to indulge either in abject entreaties to be saved from the inevitable or in wild defiance of their fate. But at this stage Jesus uttered never a word of complaint. Afterwards also, in spite of the ever-increasing pain, He preserved absolute self-control. He was absorbed either in caring for others or in prayer to God.

It is a sublime example of patience. It rebukes our softness and intolerance of pain. How easily we are made to cry out; how peevish and ill-tempered we become under slight annoyances! A headache, a toothache, a cold, or some other slight affair, is supposed to be a sufficient justification for losing all self-control and making a whole household uncomfortable. Suffering does not always sanctify. It sours some tempers and makes them selfish and exacting. This is the besetting sin of invalids—to become absorbed in their own miseries and to make all about them the slaves of their caprices. But many triumph nobly over their temptation; and in this they are following the example of the suffering Saviour. There are sick-rooms which it is a privilege to visit. You may know that the place is a scene of excruciating pain; but on the pillow there lies a sweet, patient face; the voice is cheerful and thankful; and, instead of being self-absorbed, the mind is full of unselfish thoughts for others. I recall the description given by a friend of one such invalid's chamber, which used to be filled with the most beautiful cheerfulness and activity. At a certain time of year you might see in it quite an exhibition of stockings, pinafores, dresses and other pretty things, prepared for the children of a mission-school in India. By thinking of the needs of those children far away the invalid not only kept her own sufferings at bay, but created for herself delightful connections with God's work and God's people. Yet she was one who might easily have asserted the right to do nothing, and have taxed the patience and the services of those by whom she was surrounded.

But there is another lesson besides patience in this word of Christ. He only uttered one word of physical pain; but He did utter one. His self-control was not proud or sullen. There is a silence in suffering that is mere doggedness, when we screw our courage to the sticking-place and resolve that nobody shall hear any complaint from us. We succeed in being silent, but it is with a bad grace: there is no love or patience in our hearts, but only selfish determination. This is especially a temptation when anyone has injured us and we do not wish to let him see how much we have suffered, lest he should be gratified. Jesus was surrounded by those who had wantonly wronged Him; not only had they inflicted pain, but they had laughed and mocked at His sufferings. He might have resolved not on any account to show His feelings or at least to ask any kindness. It is sometimes more difficult to ask a favour than to grant one; it requires more of the spirit of forgiveness.[4] But not only did Jesus ask a favour: He expected to receive it. Shamefully as He had been treated by those to whom He had to appeal, He believed that there might still be some remains of goodness at the bottom of their hearts. All His life He had been wont to discover more good in the worst than others believed to exist, and to the last He remained true to His own faith. The maxim of the world is to take all men for rogues till the reverse has been proved. Especially when people have enemies, they believe the own very worst of them and paint their characters without a single streak of any colour but black. To those from whom we differ in opinion we attribute the basest motives and refuse to hear any good of them. But this is not the way of Christ: He believed there were some drops of the milk of human kindness even in the hard-hearted Roman soldiers; and He was not disappointed.[5]


It is impossible to hear this pathetic cry, so expressive of helplessness and dependence, without recalling other words of our Lord to which it stands in marked contrast. Can this be He who, standing in Jerusalem not long before, surrounded with a great multitude, lifted up His voice and cried, "If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink"? Can it be He who, standing at the well of Jacob with the Samaritan woman and pointing to the springing fountain at their feet, said, "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again; but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life"? Can He who in words like these offered to quench the thirst of the world be the same who now whispers in mortal exhaustion, "I thirst"?

It is the same; and this is a contrast which runs through His whole life, the contrast between inward wealth and outward poverty. He was able to enrich the whole world, yet He had to be supported by the contributions of the women who followed Him; He could say, "I am the bread of life," yet He sometimes hungered for a meal; He could promise thrones and many mansions to those who believed on Him, yet He said Himself, "Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, yet the Son of man hath not where to lay His head."

In a materialistic age, when in so many circles money is the measure of the man, and when people are so excessively concerned about what they shall eat and what they shall drink and wherewithal they shall be clothed, it is worth while to bear this contrast in mind. Seldom have the noblest specimens of humanity been those who have been able to wallow in luxury; and the men who have enriched the world with the treasures of the mind have not infrequently been hardly able to procure daily bread. Our older boys may have seen on some of their school-books the name of Heyne. His is an immortal name in classical scholarship; but when he was a student, and even when he was enriching the literature of his country with splendid editions of the ancient writers, he was literally starving, and had sometimes to subsist on skins of apples and other offal picked up from the streets. Our own Samuel Johnson, to whose wisdom the whole globe is now a debtor, when engaged on some of his greatest works, had not shoes in which to go out, and did not know where his dinner was to come from. It would be easy from history to multiply instances of those who, though poor, yet have made many rich.

The inference is not, that one must be poor externally if one desires to be inwardly rich. The materially poor are not all spiritually rich by any means; multitudes of them, alas, are as poverty-stricken in mind and character as in physical condition. Perhaps one might even go so far as to say that as a rule the inwardly rich enjoy at least a competent portion of the good things of this life; for intelligence and character have even a market value, Money, too, can be made subservient to the highest aims of the soul. But what it is essential to remember is, that the inward is the true wealth, and that we must seek and obtain it, even, if necessary, at the sacrifice of the outward. If life is not to be impoverished and materialised, some in every age must make the choice between the inward and the outward wealth; and no one is worthy to be the servant of scholarship, art or religion who is not prepared for the choice should it fall to him. It is by the possession of intelligence, generosity and spiritual power that we enter into the higher ranks of manhood; and the most Christlike trait of all is to have the will and the ability to overflow in influences and activities which sweeten and elevate the lives of others.


It would appear that some of those round the cross were opposed to granting the request of Jesus. Misunderstanding the fourth word,[6] they supposed He was calling for Elijah; and they proposed not to help Him even with a drink of water, in order to see whether or not Elijah would come to the rescue. But in one man the impulse of humanity was too strong, and he gave Jesus what He desired. We almost love the man for it, and we envy his office.

But the Saviour is still saying, "I thirst." How and where? Listen! "I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink." "Lord, when saw we Thee athirst and gave Thee drink?" "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye did it unto Me." Wherever the brothers and sisters of Jesus are suffering, sitting in lonely rooms and wishing that somebody would come and visit them, or lying on beds of pain and needing somebody to come and ease the pillow or to reach the cup to the dry lips, there Christ is saying, "I thirst."

Perhaps He is saying it in vain. There are multitudes of professing Christians who never from end to end of the year visit any poor person. They never thread the obscure streets or ascend the grimy stairs in search of God's hidden ones. They have never acquired the art of cheering a dark home with a flower, or a hymn, or a diet, or the touch of a sympathetic hand and the smile of a healthy face. It would completely alter the Christianity of many if they could begin to do these lowly services; it would put reality into it, and it would bring into the heart a joy and exhilaration hitherto unknown. For Christ sees to it that none who thus serve Him lose their reward. An American friend told me that once, when travelling on the continent of Europe, he fell in with a fellow-countryman on board a Rhine steamer. They talked about America and soon confided to each other from which parts of the country they came, with other fragments of personal detail. They continued to travel for some days together, and my informant was so overwhelmed with kindness by his companion that at last he ventured to ask the reason. "Well," rejoined the other, "when the War was going on, I was serving in your native state; and one day our march lay through the town in which you have told me you were born. The march had been very prolonged; it was a day of intense heat; I was utterly fatigued and felt on the point of dying for thirst, when a kind woman came out of one of the houses and gave me a glass of cold water. And I have been trying to repay through you, her fellow-townsman, the kindness she showed to me." Does it not remind us of the great word of the Son of God, "Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward"?

But is this not enough? Does anyone wish to get still nearer to Christ and hold the cup not only to Him in the person of His members but to His own very lips? Well, this is possible too. Jesus still says, "I thirst." He thirsts for love. He thirsts for prayer. He thirsts for service. He thirsts for holiness. Whenever the heart of a human being turns to Him with a genuine impulse of penitence, affection or consecration, the Saviour sees of the travail of His soul and is satisfied.

[1] "I thirst."

[2] tetelestai—the very word of Jesus Himself—"It is finished—" which may possibly have been fourth.

[3] He had by this time been on the cross for four hours or more. The arrest took place about midnight; the ecclesiastical trial terminated about sunrise; the proceedings before Pilate occupied perhaps from six to nine, or rather more; the crucifixion took place towards noon; from noon till three o'clock darkness prevailed; and between this and sunset the death and burial took place. See Matt. xxvii. 1; Mark xv. 25, 33, 34, 42. St. John's statement of time, xix. 14, is a difficulty. He appears to reckon from a different starting-point. See Andrews' Life of Our Lord (new edition), pp. 545 ff. In the same passage St. John says, "It was the preparation of the passover"; does this mean the day before the feast commenced, or the day before the Sabbath of Passover Week? There are held to be other indications that St. John represents the crucifixion as having taken place the day before the Passover began, whereas the Synoptists place it the day after (especially John xviii. 28, where the question is whether "the passover" means the Paschal Lamb or the Chagigah, a portion of the feast belonging to the second day). On this question there is an extensive literature. See Andrews, 452-81, and Keim, vol. vi., pp. 195-219.

[4] "To be in too great a hurry to discharge an obligation is itself a kind of ingratitude."—LA ROCHEFOUCAULD.

[5] Hoffmann says that Jesus refused the intoxicating draught, before the crucifixion began, that His senses might be kept clear; and that now He accepted the refreshing draught for the same purpose.

[6] "Eli, Eli," etc.



Like the Fifth, the Sixth Word from the Cross is, in the Greek, literally a single word; and it has been often affirmed to be the greatest single word ever uttered. It may be said to comprehend in itself the salvation of the world; and thousands of human souls, in the agony of conviction or in the crisis of death, have laid hold of it as the drowning sailor grasps the life-buoy.

Sometimes it has been interpreted as merely the last sign of ebbing life: as if the meaning were, It is all over; this long agony of pain and weakness is done at last. But the dying words of Jesus were not spoken in this tone. The Fifth Word, we are expressly told, was uttered with a loud voice; so was the Seventh; and, although this is not expressly stated about the Sixth, the likelihood is that, in this respect, it resembled the other two. It was not a cry of defeat, but of victory.

Both the suffering of our Lord and His work were finishing together; and it is natural to suppose that He was referring to both. Suffering and work are the two sides of every life, the one predominating in some cases and the other in others. In the experience of Jesus both were prominent: He had both a great work to accomplish and He suffered greatly in the process of achieving it. But now both have been brought to a successful close; and this is what the Sixth Word expresses. It is, therefore, first, the Worker's Cry of Achievement; and, secondly, the Sufferer's Cry of Relief.


Christ, when on earth, had a great work on hand, which was now finished.

This dying word carries us back to the first word from His lips which has been preserved to us: "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" Even at twelve years of age He already knew that there was a business entrusted to Him by His Father in heaven, about which His thoughts had to be occupied. We cannot perhaps say that then already He comprehended it in its whole extent. It was to grow upon Him with the development of His manhood. In lonely meditations in the fields and pastures of Nazareth it seized and inspired His mind. As He cultivated the life of prayer, it became more and more His settled purpose. The more He became acquainted with human nature, and with the character and the needs of His own age, the more clearly did it rise before Him. As He heard and read the Scriptures of the Old Testament, He saw it hinted and foreshadowed in type and symbol, in rite and institution, in law and prophets. There He found the programme of His life sketched out beforehand; and perhaps one of His uppermost thoughts, when He said, "It is finished," was that all which had been foretold about Him in the ancient Scriptures had been fulfilled.

After His public life commenced, the sense of being charged with a task which He had to fulfil was one of the master-thoughts of His life. It was written on His very face and bodily gait. He never had the easy, indeterminate air of one who does not know what He means to do in the world. "I have a baptism," He would say, "to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished." In a rapt moment, at the well of Sychar, after His interview with the Samaritan woman, when His disciples proffered Him food, He put it away from Him, saying, "I have meat to eat that ye know not of," and He added, "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me and to finish His work." On His last journey to Jerusalem, as He went on in front of His disciples, they were amazed and, as they followed, they were afraid. His purpose possessed Him; He was wholly in it, body, soul and spirit. He bestowed on it every scrap of power He possessed, and every moment of His time. Looking back now from the close of life, He has not to regret that any talent has been either abused or left unused. All have been husbanded for the one purpose and all lavished on the work.

What was this work of Christ? In what terms shall we express it? At all events it was a greater work than any other son of man has ever attempted. Men have attempted much, and some of them have given themselves to their chosen enterprises with extraordinary devotion and tenacity. The conqueror has devoted himself to his scheme of subduing the world; the patriot to the liberation of his country; the philosopher to the enlargement of the realm of knowledge; the inventor has rummaged with tireless industry among the secrets of nature; and the discoverer has risked his life in opening up untrodden continents and died with his face to his task. But none ever undertook a task worthy to be compared with that which engrossed the mind of Jesus.

It was a work for God with men, and it was a work for men with God.

The thought that it was a work for God, with which God had charged Him, was often in Christ's mouth, and this consciousness was one of the chief sources of His inspiration. "I must work the work of Him that sent Me while it is day," He would say; or, "Therefore doth my Father love Me, because I do always those things which please Him." And, at the close of His life-work, He said, in words closely related to those of our text, "I have glorified Thee on the earth, I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do." This was His task, to glorify God on the earth—to make known the Father to the children of men.

But just as obviously was it a work for men with God. This was stamped on all His words and on the entire tenor of His life. He was bringing men back to God, and He had to remove the obstacles which stood in the way. He had to roll away the stone from the sepulchre in which humanity was entombed and call the dead to come forth. He had to press His weight against the huge iron gates of human guilt and doom and force them open. He had done so; and, as He said, "It is finished," He was at the same time saying to all mankind, "Behold, I have set before you an open door, and no man can shut it."

The more difficult and prolonged any task is, the greater is the satisfaction of finishing it. Everyone knows what it is, after accomplishing anything on which a great deal of labour has been bestowed or the accomplishment of which has been delayed, to be able to say, "There; it is finished at last." In the more signal efforts of human genius and energy there is a satisfaction of final achievement which warms even spectators with sympathy at the distance of hundreds of years. What must it be to the poet, after equipping himself by the labours of a lifetime with the stores of knowledge and the skill in the use of language requisite for the composition of a "Divine Comedy" or a "Paradise Lost," and after wearing himself lean for many years at his task, to be able at last, when the final line has been penned, to write Finis at the bottom of his performance? What must it have been to Columbus, after he had worn his life out in seeking the patronage necessary for his undertaking and endured the perils of voyaging in stormy seas and among mutinous mariners, to see at last the sunlight on the peak of Darien which informed him that his dream was true and his lifework accomplished? When we read how William Wilberforce, the champion of Slave Emancipation, heard on his deathbed, a few hours before he breathed his last, that the British Legislature had agreed to the expenditure necessary to secure the object to which he had sacrificed his life, what heart can refuse its tribute of sympathetic joy, as it thinks of him expiring with the shouts of emancipated millions in his ears? These are feeble suggestions of the triumph with which Christ saw, fallen behind Him, His accomplished task, as He cried, "It is finished."


If Jesus had during life a vast work on hand which He was able on the cross to say He had finished, He was in quite as exceptional a degree a sufferer; yet on the cross He was able to say that His suffering also was finished.

Suffering is the reverse side of work. It is the shadow that accompanies achievement, as his shadow follows a man. It is due to the resistance offered to the worker by the medium in which he toils.

The life of Jesus was one of great suffering, because He had to do His work in an extremely resistant medium. His purpose was so beneficent, and His passion for the good of the world so obvious, that it might have been expected that He would meet with nothing but encouragement and furtherance. He was so religious that all the religious forces might have been expected to second His efforts; He was so patriotic that it would have been natural if His native country had welcomed Him with open arms; He was so philanthropic that He ought to have been the idol of the multitude. But at every step He met with opposition. Everything that was influential in His age and country turned against Him. Obstruction became more and more persistent and cruel, till at length on Calvary it reached its climax, when all the powers of earth and hell were combined with the one purpose of crushing Him and thrusting Him out of existence. And they succeeded.

But the mystery of suffering is very insufficiently explained when it is defined as the reaction of the work on the worker. While a man's work is what he does with the force of his will, suffering is what is done to him against his will. It may be done by the will of opponents and enemies. But this is never the whole explanation. Above this will, which may be thoroughly evil, there is a will which is good and means us good by our suffering.

Suffering is the will of God. It is His chief instrument for fashioning His creatures according to His own plan. While by our work we ought to be seeking to make a bit of the world such as He would have it to be, by our suffering He is seeking to make us such as He would have us to be. He blocks up our pathway by it on this side and on that, in order that we may be kept in the path which He has appointed. He prunes our desires and ambitions; He humbles us and makes us meek and acquiescent. By our work we help to make a well-ordered world, but by our suffering He makes a sanctified man; and in His eyes this is by far the greater triumph.

Perhaps this is the most difficult half of life to manage. While it is by no means easy to accomplish the work of life, it is harder still to bear suffering and to benefit by it. Have you ever seen a man to whom nature had given great talents and grace great virtues, so that the possibilities of his life seemed unbounded, while he had imagination enough to expatiate over them: a man who might have been a missionary, opening up dark countries to civilisation and the gospel; or a statesman, swaying a parliament with his eloquence and shaping the destinies of millions by his wisdom; or a thinker, wrestling with the problems of the age, sowing the seeds of light, and raising for himself an imperishable monument: but who was laid hold of by some remorseless disease or suddenly crushed by some accident; so that all at once his schemes were upset and his life narrowed to petty anxieties about his health and shifts to avoid the evil day, which could not, however, be long postponed? And did it not seem to you, as you watched him, to be far harder for him to accept this destiny with a good grace and with cheerful submission than it would have been to accomplish the career of enterprise and achievement which once seemed to lie before him? To do nothing is often more difficult than to do the greatest things, and to submit requires more faith than to achieve.

The life of Christ was hemmed and crushed in on every hand. Evil men were the proximate cause of this; but He acknowledged behind them the will of God. He had to accept a career of shame instead of glory, of brief and limited activity instead of far-travelling beneficence, of premature and violent death instead of world-wide and everlasting empire. But He never murmured; however bitter any sacrifice might be on other grounds, He made it sweet to Himself by reflecting that it was the will of His Father. When the worst came to the worst, and He was forced to cry, "If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me," He was swift to add, "Nevertheless not My will, but Thine, be done." And thus on step after step of the ladder His thoughts were brought into perfect accord with His Father's, and His will with His Father's will.

At last on the cross the cup out of which He had drunk so often was put into His hands for the last time. The draught was large, black and bitter as never before. But He did not flinch. He drank it up. As He did so, the last segment of the circle of His own perfection completed itself; and, while, flinging the cup away after having exhausted the last drop, He cried, "It is finished," the echo came back from heaven from those who saw with wonder and adoration the perfect round of His completed character, "It is finished."

Though these two sides of the life of Christ are separable in thought, it is evident that they constitute together but one life.[2] The work He did involved the suffering which He bore and lent to it meaning and dignity. On the other hand, the suffering perfected the Worker and thus conferred greatness on His work. In His crowning task of atoning for the sin of the world it was as a sufferer that He accomplished the will of God. And now both are finished; and henceforward the world has a new possession: it has had other perfect things; but never before and never since has it had a perfect life.

[1] "It is finished."

[2] Sometimes they are expressed by saying that life is both a Mission and a Discipline.



While all the words of dying persons are full of interest, there is special importance attached to the last of them. This is the Last Word of Jesus; and both for this reason and for others it claims particular attention.

A noted Englishman is recorded to have said, when on his deathbed, to a nephew, "Come near and see how a Christian can die." Whether or not that was a wise saying, certainly to learn how to die is one of the most indispensable acquirements of mortals; and nowhere can it be learnt so well as by studying the death of Christ. This Last Word especially teaches us how to die. It will, however, teach us far more, if we have the wit to learn: it contains not only the art of dying but also the art of living.


The final word of the dying Saviour was a prayer. Not all the words from the cross were prayers. One was addressed to the penitent thief, another to His mother and His favourite disciple, and a third to the soldiers who were crucifying Him; but prayer was distinctly the language of His dying hours. It was not by chance that His very last word was a prayer; for the currents within Him were all flowing Godwards.

While prayer is appropriate for all times and seasons, there are occasions when it is singularly appropriate. At the close of the day, when we are about to enter into the state of sleep, which is an image of death, the most natural of all states of mind is surely prayer. In moments of mortal peril, as on shipboard when a multitude are suddenly confronted with death, an irresistible impulse presses men to their knees. At the communion table, when the bread and the wine are circulating in silence, every thoughtful person is inevitably occupied with prayer. But on a death-bed it is more in its place than anywhere else. Then we are perforce parting with all that is earthly—with relatives and friends, with business and property, with the comforts of home and the face of the earth. How natural to lay hold of what alone we can keep hold of; and this is what prayer does; for it lays hold of God.

It is so natural to pray then that prayer might be supposed to be an invariable element of the last scenes. But it is not always. A death-bed without God is an awful sight; yet it does occur. The currents of the mind may be flowing so powerfully earthward that even then they cannot be diverted. There are even death-beds where the thought of God is a terror which the dying man keeps away; and sometimes his friends assist him to keep it away, suffering none to be seen and nothing to be said that could call God to mind. Natural as prayer is, it is only so to those who have learned to pray before. It had long been to Jesus the language of life. He had prayed without ceasing—on the mountain-top and in the busy haunts of men, by Himself and in company with others—and it was only the bias of the life asserting itself in death when, as He breathed His last, He turned to God.

If, then, we would desire our last words to be words of prayer, we should commence to pray at once. If the face of God is to shine on our death-bed, we must now acquaint ourselves with Him and be at peace. If, as we look upon the dying Christ or on the dying saints, we say, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his," then we must begin now to live the life of the righteous and to practise its gracious habits.


The last word of the dying Saviour was a quotation from Scripture.

This was not the first time our Lord quoted Scripture on the cross: His great cry, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" was likewise borrowed from the Old Testament, and it is possible that there is Scriptural allusion in others of the Seven Words.

If prayer is natural to the lips of the dying, so is Scripture. For different seasons and for different uses there is special suitability in different languages and literatures. Latin is the language of law and scholarship, French of conversation and diplomacy, German of philosophy, English of commerce. But in the most sacred moments and transactions of life there is no language like that of the Bible. Especially is this the case in everything connected with death. On a tombstone, for example, how irrelevant, as a rule, seem all other quotations, but how perfect is the fitness of a verse from Scripture. And on a death-bed there are no words which so well become the dying lips.

This is strikingly illustrated by the following extract, guaranteed as authentic, from a private diary:—"I remember, when I was a student, visiting a dying man. He had been in the university with me, but a few years ahead; and, at the close of a brilliant career in college, he was appointed to a professorship of philosophy in a colonial university. But, after a very few years, he fell into bad health; and he came home to Scotland to die. It was a summer Sunday afternoon when I called to see him, and it happened that I was able to offer him a drive. His great frame was with difficulty got into the open carriage; but then he lay back comfortably and was able to enjoy the fresh air. Two other friends were with him that day—college companions, who had come out from the city to visit him. On the way back they dropped into the rear, and I was alone beside him, when he began to talk with appreciation of their friendship and kindness. 'But,' he said, 'do you know what they have been doing all day?' I could not guess. 'Well,' he said, 'they have been reading to me Sartor Resartus; and oh! I am awfully tired of it.' Then, turning on me his large eyes, he began to repeat, 'This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief;' and then he added with great earnestness, 'There is nothing else of any use to me now.' I had not opened the subject at all: perhaps I was afraid to introduce it to one whom I felt to be so much my superior; but I need not say how overjoyed I was to obtain such a glimpse into the very depths of a great, true mind." Sartor Resartus is one of the best of books; there are few to be so heartily recommended. Yet there are moments in life—and those immediately before death are among them—when even such a book may be felt to be irrelevant, and, indeed, no book is appropriate except the one which contains the words of eternal life.

It is worth noting from which portion of the Old Testament Jesus fetched the word on which He stayed up His soul in this supreme moment. The quotation is from the thirty-first Psalm. The other great word uttered on the cross to which I have already alluded was also taken from one of the Psalms—the twenty-second. This is undoubtedly the most precious of all the books of the Old Testament. It is a book penned as with the life-blood of its authors; it is the record of humanity's profoundest sorrows and sublimest ecstasies; it is the most perfect expression which has ever been given to experience; it has been the vade-mecum of all the saints; and to know and love it is one of the best signs of spirituality.

Jesus knew where to go in the Bible for the language that suited Him; for He had been a diligent student of it all His days. He heard it in the home of His childhood; He listened to it in the synagogue; probably He got the use of the synagogue rolls and hung over it in secret. He knew it through and through. Therefore, when He became a preacher, His language was saturated with it, and in controversy, by the apt use of it, He could put to shame those who were its professional students. But in His private life likewise He employed it in every exigency. He fought with it the enemy in the wilderness and overcame him; and now, in the supreme need of a dying hour, it stood Him in good stead. It is to those who, like Jesus, have hidden God's Word in their hearts that it is a present help in every time of need; and, if we wish to stay ourselves upon it in dying, we ought to make it the man of our counsel in living.

It is worth observing in what manner Jesus made this quotation from the Psalter: He added something at the beginning and He omitted something at the close. At the beginning He added, "Father." This is not in the psalm. It could not have been. In the Old Testament the individual had not begun yet to address God by this name, though God was called the Father of the nation as a whole. The new consciousness of God which Christ introduced into the world is embodied in this word, and, by prefixing it to the citation, He gave the verse a new colouring. We may, then, do this with the Old Testament: we may put New-Testament meaning into it. Indeed, in connection with this very verse we have a still more remarkable illustration of the same treatment. Stephen, the first martyr of Christianity, was in many respects very like his Master, and in his martyrdom closely imitated Him. Thus on the field of death he repeated Christ's prayer for His enemies—"Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." Also, he imitated this final word, but he put it in a new form, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit;" that is, he addressed to Christ the dying prayer which Christ Himself addressed to the Father.[2] The other alteration which Jesus made was the omission of the words, "for Thou hast redeemed me." It would not have been fitting for Him to employ them. But we will not omit them; and if, like Stephen, we address the prayer to Christ, how much richer and more pathetic are the words to us than they were even to him who first penned them.


It was about His spirit that the dying Saviour prayed.

Dying persons are sometimes much taken up with their bodies. Their pain and trouble may occasion this, and the prescriptions of the physician may require close attention. Some display a peculiar anxiety even about what is to happen to the body after the life has left it, giving the minutest instructions as to their own obsequies. Not infrequently the minds of the dying are painfully occupied with their worldly affairs: they have their property to dispose of, and they are distracted with anxieties about their families. The example of Jesus shows that it is not wrong to bestow attention on these things even on a deathbed; for His fifth word, "I thirst," had reference to His own bodily necessities; and, whilst hanging on the cross, He made provision for His mother's future comfort. But His supreme concern was His spirit; to the interests of which He devoted His final prayer.

What is the spirit? It is the finest, highest, sacredest part of our being. In modern and ordinary language we call it the soul, when we speak of man as composed of body and soul; but in the language of Scripture it is distinguished even from the soul as the most lofty and exquisite part of the inner man. It is to the rest of our nature what the flower is to the plant or what the pearl is to the shell. It is that within us which is specially allied to God and eternity. It is also, however, that which sin seeks to corrupt and our spiritual enemies seek to destroy. No doubt these are specially active in the article of death; it is their last chance; and fain would they seize the spirit as it parts from the body and, dragging it down, rob it of its destiny. Jesus knew that He was launching out into eternity; and, plucking His spirit away from these hostile hands which were eager to seize it, He placed it in the hands of God. There it was safe. Strong and secure are the hands of the Eternal. They are soft and loving too. With what a passion of tenderness must they have received the spirit of Jesus. "I have covered thee," said God to His servant in an ancient prophecy, "in the shadow of My hand;" and now Jesus, escaping from all the enemies, visible and invisible, by whom He was beset, sought the fulfilment of this prophecy.

This is the art of dying; but is it not also the art of living? The spirit of every son of Adam is threatened by dangers at death; but it is threatened with them also in life. As has been said, it is our flower and our pearl; but the flower may be crushed and the pearl may be lost long before death arrives. "The flesh lusteth against the spirit." So does the world. Temptation assails it, sin denies it. No better prayer, therefore, could be offered by a living man, morning by morning, than this of the dying Saviour. Happy is he who can say, in reference to his spirit, "I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him against that day."


This last word of the expiring Saviour revealed His view of death.

The word used by Jesus in commending His spirit to God implies that He was giving it away in the hope of finding it again. He was making a deposit in a safe place, to which, after the crisis of death was over, He would come and recover it. Such is the force of the word, as is easily seen in the quotation just made from St. Paul, where he says that he knows that God will keep that which he has committed to Him—using the same word as Jesus—"against that day." [3] Which day? Obviously some point in the future when he could appear and claim from God that which he had entrusted to Him. Such a date was also in Christ's eye when He said, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit." Death is a disruption of the parts of which human nature is composed. One part—the spirit—was going away to God; another was in the hands of men, who were wreaking on it their wicked will; and it was on its way to the house appointed for all living. But Jesus was looking forward to a reunion of the separated parts, when they would again find each other, and the integrity of the personal life be restored.

The most momentous question which the dying can ask, or which the living can ask in the prospect of death, is, "If a man die, shall he live again?" does he all die? and does he die forever? There is a terrible doubt in the human heart that it may be so; and there have never been wanting teachers who have turned this doubt into a dogma. They hold that mind is only a form or a function of matter, and that, therefore, in the dissolution of the bodily materials, man dissolves and mixes with the material universe. Others, while holding fast the distinction between mind and matter, have taught that, as the body returns to the dust, the mind returns to the ocean of being, in which its personality is lost, as the drop is in the sea, and there can be no reunion. There is, however, something high and sacred within us that rebels against these doctrines; and the best teachers of the race have encouraged us to hope for something better. Still, their assurances have been hesitating and their own faith obscure. It is to Christ we have to go: He has the words of eternal life. He spoke on this subject without hesitation or obscurity; and His dying word proves that He believed for Himself what He taught to others. Not only, however, has He by His teaching brought life and immortality to light: He is Himself the guarantee of the doctrine; for He is our immortal life. Because we are united to Him we know we can never perish; nothing, not even death, can separate us from His love; "Because I live," He has said, "ye shall live also."

It may be that in a very literal sense we have in the study of this sentence been learning the art of dying: these may be our own dying words. They have been the dying words of many. When John Huss was being led to execution, there was stuck on his head a paper cap, scrawled over with pictures of devils, to whom the wretched priests by whom he was surrounded consigned his soul; but again and again he cried, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit." These were also the last words of Polycarp, of Jerome of Prague, of Luther, of Melanchthon, and of many others. Who could wish his spirit to be carried away to God in a more glorious vehicle? But, whether or not we may use this prayer in death, let us diligently make use of it in life. Close not the book without breathing, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit."

[1] "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit."

[2] The first business of the interpreter of Scripture is to find out precisely what every verse or paragraph meant at the time and place where it was written; and there is endless profit in the exact determination of this original application. But, whilst the interpreter's task begins, it does not end with this. The Bible is a book for every generation; and the deduction of the message which it is intended to convey to the present day is as truly the task of the interpreter. There is a species of exegesis, sometimes arrogating to itself the sole title to be considered scientific, by which the garden of Scripture is transmuted into an herbarium of withered specimens.

[3] Christ's word is paratithemai, and St. Paul's, 2 Tim. i. 12, ten paratheken mou, according to the best reading.



There are indications that to some of those who took part in the crucifixion of Christ His death presented hardly anything to distinguish it from an ordinary execution; and there were others who were anxious to believe that it had no features which were extraordinary. But God did not leave His Son altogether without witness. The end of the Saviour's sufferings was accompanied by certain signs, which showed the interest excited by them in the world unseen.


The first sign was the rending of the veil of the temple. This was a heavy curtain covering the entrance to the Holy Place or the entrance to the Holy of Holies—most probably the latter. Both entrances were thus protected, and Josephus gives the following description of one of the curtains, which will probably convey a fair idea of either; five ells high and sixteen broad, of Babylonian texture, and wonderfully stitched of blue, white, scarlet and purple—representing the universe in its four elements—scarlet standing for fire and blue for air by their colours, and the white linen for earth and the purple for sea on account of their derivation, the one, from the flax of the earth and the other from the shellfish of the sea.

The fact that the rent proceeded from top to bottom was considered to indicate that it was made by the finger of God; but whether any physical means may have been employed we cannot tell. Some have thought of the earthquake, which took place at the same moment, as being connected with it through the loosening of a beam or some similar accident.[1]

At critical moments in history, when the minds of men are charged with excitement, even slight accidents may assume remarkable significance.[2] Such incidents occur at turning-points of the life even of individuals.[3] They derive their significance from the emotion with which the minds of observers happen at the time to be filled. No doubt the rending of the temple veil might appear to some a pure accident, while in the minds of others it crystallised a hundred surging thoughts. But we must ascribe to it a higher dignity and a divine intention.

Like the pillar of cloud and fire in the wilderness, it had a double face—one of judgment and another of mercy.

It betokened the desecration of the shrine and the exodus of the Deity from the temple whose day of opportunity and usefulness was over. And it is curious to note how at the time not only the Christian but even the Jewish mind was big with this thought. There is a Jewish legend in Josephus, which is referred to also by the Roman historian Tacitus, that at the Passover some years after this the east door of the inner court of the temple, which was so heavy that twenty men were required to close it, and was, besides, at the moment strongly locked and barred, suddenly at midnight flew open; and, the following Pentecost, the priests whose duty it was to guard the court by night, heard first a rushing noise as of hurrying feet and then a loud cry, as of many voices, saying, "Let us depart from hence."

Nor was it only in Palestine that in that age the air was charged with the impression that a turning-point in history had been reached, and that the ancient world was passing away. Plutarch[4] heard a singular story of one Epitherses from the rhetorician Aemilianus, who had it from the man's father. On a certain occasion this Epitherses happened to be a passenger on board a ship which got becalmed among the Echinades. As it stood near one of the islands, suddenly there came from the shore a voice, loud and clear, calling Thamus, the pilot, an Egyptian, by his name. Twice he kept silence; but, when the call came the third time, he replied; whereupon the voice cried still louder, "When you come to the Paludes, proclaim that the great Pan is dead." Pan being the god of nature in that ancient world, all who heard were terrified, and they debated whether or not they should obey the command. At last it was agreed that if, when they came to the Paludes, it was windy, they were not to obey, but, if calm, they would. It turned out to be calm; and, accordingly, the pilot, standing on the prow of the vessel, shouted out the words; whereupon the air was filled, not with an echo, but the loud groaning of a great multitude mingled with surprise.[5] The pilot was called before the Emperor Tiberius, who strictly enquired into the truth of the incident.

Such was the meaning of the rending of the veil on its dark side: it denoted that the reign of the gods was over and that Jerusalem was no longer to be the place where men ought to worship. But it had at the same time a bright side; and this was the side for the sake of which the incident was treasured by the friends of Jesus. It meant, as St. Paul says, that the wall between Jew and Gentile had been broken down. It meant, as is set forth in the noble argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that the system of ceremonies and intermediaries by which under the Old Testament the worshipper might approach God and yet was kept at a distance from Him had been swept away. The heart of God is now fully revealed, and it is a heart of love; and, at the same time, the heart of man, liberated by the sacrifice of Christ from the conscience of sin, as it could never be by the offering of bulls and goats, can joyfully venture into the divine presence and go out and in with the freedom of a child. "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for us, through the veil—that is to say, His flesh—and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith." [6]


The second sign was the resurrection of certain of the dead—"The graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints which slept arose and came out of the graves after His resurrection, and went into the holy city and appeared unto many."

Whether or not the rending of the veil in the temple was connected with the earthquake, there is no doubt that this second sign was. The graves in Palestine were caves in the rocks, the mouths of which were closed with great stones. Some of these stones were shaken from their places by the earthquake; and the bodies themselves, which lay on shelves or stood upright in niches, may have been disturbed. But in some of them a greater disturbance occurred: besides the external shaking there took place within them a motion of the life-giving breath of God.

In the minds of many devout scholars this miracle has excited suspicion on several accounts. They say it is contrary to the teaching of Scripture elsewhere, according to which Christ was the firstfruits of them that slept. If these dead bodies were reanimated at the moment of this earthquake, they, and not He, were the firstfruits. To this it is answered that St. Matthew is careful to note that they came out of their graves "after His resurrection"; so that St. Matthew still agrees with St. Paul in making Christ the first to rise. But, then, it is asked, in what condition were they between their reanimation and their resurrection? The Evangelist appears to state that they rose from death to life at the moment of the earthquake, but did not emerge from the tomb till the third day afterwards, when Christ had risen. Is this credible? or is it an apocryphal marvel, which has been interpolated in the text of St. Matthew? The other Evangelists, while, along with St. Matthew, narrating the rending of the veil, do not touch on this incident at all. The whole representation, it is argued, lacks the sobriety which is characteristic of the authentic miracles of the Gospels and broadly separates them from the ecclesiastical miracles, about which there is generally an air of triviality and grotesqueness.

On the other hand, there is no indication in the oldest and best manuscripts of St. Matthew that this is an interpolation; and many of the acutest minds have felt this trait to be thoroughly congruous and suitable to its place. If, they contend, He who had just died on Calvary was what He gave Himself out and we believe Him to be, His death must have excited the profoundest commotion in the kingdoms of the dead. The world of living men and women was insensible to the character of the event which was taking place before its eyes; but the world unseen was agitated as it never had been before and never was to be again. It was not unnatural, but the reverse, that some of the dead, in their excitement and eagerness, should even press back over the boundaries of the other world, in order to be in the world where Christ was. The question where they were or what they were doing between their reanimation and resurrection is a triviality not worth considering. At all events, they rose after their Lord; and was it not appropriate that when, after the forty days, He ascended to heaven, there to be received by rejoicing angels and archangels, He should not only appear in the flesh, but be accompanied by specimens of what His resurrection power was ultimately to do for all believers? If it be asked who the favoured saints were to whom this blessed priority was vouchsafed, we cannot tell. The dust, however, was not far away of many whom the Lord might delight to honour—patriarchs, like Abraham; kings, like David; prophets, like Isaiah.

But the true significance of this sign is not dependent on such speculations. Even if it should ever be discovered, as it is not in the least likely to be, that this story was interpolated in St. Matthew, and we should be driven to the conclusion that it was invented by the excited fancy of the primitive Christians, even then we should have to ask what caused them to invent it. And the only possible answer would be, that it was the force of the conviction burning within them that by His death and resurrection Christ had opened the gates of death to all the saints. This was the glorious faith which was begotten by the experiences of those never-to-be-forgotten days, whether the sight of these resurrected saints played any part or not in maturing it; and it is now the faith of the Church and the faith of mankind.

This may well be called the rending of another veil. If in the ancient world there was a veil on the face of God, there was a veil likewise on the face of eternity.[7] The home of the soul was hidden from the children of men. They vaguely surmised it, indeed; they could never believe that they were wholly dust. But, apart from Christ, the speculations even of the wisest as to the other world are hardly more correct or certain than might be the speculations of infants in the womb as to the condition of this world.[8] Christ, on the contrary, always spoke of the world invisible with the freedom and confidence of one to whom it was native and well known; and His resurrection and ascension afford the most authentic glimpses into the realm of immortality which the world has ever received.

In this sign, indeed, it is with the death and not with the resurrection that this authentication is connected. But the resurrection of Christ is allied in the most intimate manner with His death. It was the public recognition of His righteousness. Since, however, He died not for Himself alone, but as a public person, His mystical body has the same right to resurrection, and in due time it will be made manifest that, He having discharged every claim on their behalf, death has now no right to detain them.


The first sign was in the physical world; the second was in the underworld of the dead; but the third was in the common world of living men. This was the acknowledgment of Christ by the centurion who superintended His crucifixion.

Whether, like the preceding signs, this third one is to be connected with the earthquake is a question. Probably the answer ought to be in the affirmative. The sensation produced by an earthquake is like nothing else in nature; and its first effect on an unsophisticated mind is to create the sense that God is near. Probably, therefore, the earthquake was felt by the centurion to be the divine Amen to the thoughts which had been rising in his mind, and it gave them a speedy and complete delivery in his confession.

This confession was, however, the result of his observation of Jesus throughout His whole trial and the subsequent proceedings; and it is an eloquent tribute to our Lord's behaviour. The centurion may have been at the side of Jesus from the arrest to the end. Through those unparalleled hours he had observed the rage and injustice of His enemies; and he had marked how patient, unretaliating, gentle and magnanimous He had been. He had heard Him praying for His crucifiers, comforting the thief on the cross, providing for His mother, communing with God. More and more his interest was excited and his heart stirred, till at last he was standing opposite the cross,[9] drinking in every syllable and devouring every movement; and, when the final prayer was uttered and the earthquake answered it, his rising conviction brimmed over and he could not withhold his testimony.

St. Luke makes him say only, "This was a righteous man," while the others report, "This was the Son of God." But St. Luke's may include theirs; because, if the centurion meant to state that the claims of Jesus were just, what were His claims? At Pilate's judgment-seat he had heard it stated that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and perhaps he had heard Him make this claim Himself in reply to Pilate's question. This name, along with others like it, had been hurled at Jesus, in his hearing, by those standing round the cross.

But what did he mean when he made this acknowledgment? It has been held that all which he, a heathen, could imply was that Jesus was a son of God in the sense in which the Greeks and Romans believed Hercules, Castor and other heroes to be sons of their deities. This may be near the truth; but his soul was moved, his mind was opened; and, once in the way, he could easily proceed further in the knowledge of Christ. Tradition says that his name was Longinus, and that he became bishop of Cappadocia and ultimately died a martyr.

Have we not here the rending of a third veil? There is a veil on the face of God which requires to be removed; and there is a veil on the face of eternity which requires to be removed; but the most fatal veil is that which is on the heart of the individual and prevents him from seeing the glory of Christ. It was on the faces of nearly all the multitude that day assembled round the cross. It was on the faces of the poor soldiers gambling within a few feet of the dying Saviour; in their case it was a veil of insensibility. It was on the faces of the ecclesiastics and the mob of Jerusalem; and in their case it was a thick veil of prejudice. The greatest sight ever witnessed on earth was there beside them; but they were stoneblind to it.

The glory of Christ is still the greatest sight which anyone can see between the cradle and the grave. And it is now as near everyone of us as it was to the crowd on Calvary. Some see it; for the veil upon their faces is rent; and they are transfixed and transformed by the sight. But others are blinded. How near one may be to Jesus, how much mixed up with His cause, how well informed about His life and doctrine, and yet never see His glory or know Him as a personal Saviour! It is said that people may spend a lifetime in the midst of perfect scenery and yet never awake to its charm; but by comes a painter or poet and drinks the beauty in, till he is intoxicated with it and puts it into a glorious picture or a deathless song. So can some remember a time when Jesus, though in a sense well known, was nothing to them; but at a certain point a veil seemed to rend and an entire change supervened; and ever since then the world is full of Him; His name seems written on the stars and among the flowers; He is their first thought when they wake and their last before they sleep; He is with them in the house and by the way; He is their all in all.

This is the most critical rending of the veil; because, when it takes place, the others follow. When we have our eyes opened to see the glory of Christ, we soon know the Father also; and the darkness passes from the face of eternity, because eternity for us is to be forever with the Lord.

[1] "May this phenomenon account for the early conversion of so many priests recorded in Acts vi. 7?"—EDERSHEIM.

[2] Shakespeare is very fond of describing the portents by which remarkable events are foreshadowed. Thus, Julius Caesar, Act I. Scene ii.:—

"O Cicero, I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds Have rived the knotty oaks; and I have seen Th' ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam, To be exalted with the threatening clouds; But never till to-night, never till now Did I go through a tempest dropping fire. A common slave—you know him well by sight— Held up his left hand, which did flame and burn Like twenty torches joined; and yet his hand, Not sensible of fire, remained unscorched. Besides—I ha' not since put up my sword— Against the Capitol I met a lion, Who glared upon me and went surly by, Without annoying me. And there were drawn Upon a heap an hundred ghastly women, Transformed with their fear, who swore they saw Men, all in fire, walk up and down the streets. And yesterday the bird of night did sit Even at noonday upon the marketplace, Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies Do so conjointly meet, let not men say, 'These are their reasons—they are natural,' For I believe they are portentous things Unto the climate that they point upon."

See also Act II., Scene ii., and Act V., Scene i. of the same play; Macbeth, Act II., Scene ii.; Hamlet, Act I., Scene i. Such impressions are not, however, even in modern times, confined to poetry alone. Historical instances will suggest themselves to every reader.

[3] Some of the most interesting I have read occur in a brief memoir of the founder of the Bagster Publishing Company issued on the centenary of its opening.

[4] De Oraculorum Defectu, quoted by Heubner in his commentary, in loc.

[5] stenagmos ama thaumasmo.

[6] Heb. x. 19-22.

[7] So the ignorance of immortality is expressly called in the beautiful passage, Isa. xxv. 7.

[8] Sir Thomas Browne, Hydrotaphia, chap. iv.: "A dialogue between two infants in the womb concerning the state of this world might handsomely illustrate our ignorance of the next, where, methinks, we still discourse in Plato's den, and are but embryo philosophers."

[9] Parestekos ex enantias autou.



It was not usual to remove bodies from the cross immediately after their death. They were allowed to hang, exposed to the weather, till they rotted and fell to pieces; or they might be torn by birds or beasts; and at last a fire was perhaps kindled beneath the cross to rid the place of the remains. Such was the Roman custom; but among the Jews there was more scrupulosity. In their law there stood this provision: "If a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day (for he that is hanged is accursed of God); that thy land be not defiled which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance." [1] Whether or not the Jews always tried to get this provision observed in executions carried out in their midst by their Roman masters, we cannot tell; but it was natural that they should do so in reference to executions carried out in the neighbourhood of the holy city and at Passover time. In the present instance there was the additional reason, that the morrow of the execution of Jesus was a high day—it was the Sabbath of the Passover—a kind of double Sabbath, which would have been desecrated by any unclean thing, like an unburied corpse, exposed to view. The Jews were extremely sensitive about such points. At any time they regarded themselves as unclean if they touched a dead body, and they had to go through a process of purgation before their sense of sanctity was restored. But on the occasion of a Passover Sabbath they would have felt it to be a desecration if any dead thing had even met their eyes or rested uncovered on the soil of their city. Therefore their representatives went to the Roman governor and begged that the three crucified men should be put to death by clubbing and their bodies buried before the Sabbath commenced.

The suggestion has often been made that, behind this pretended scrupulosity, their real aim was to inflict additional pain and indignity on Jesus. The breaking of the bones of the body, by smashing them with clubs, was a peculiarly horrible form of punishment sometimes inflicted by the Romans.[2] It was nearly as cruel and degrading as crucifixion itself; and it was an independent punishment, not conjoined with crucifixion. But the Jews in this case attempted to get them united, that Jesus, besides being crucified, might, so to speak, die yet another death of the most revolting description. The Evangelist, however, throws no doubt on the motive which they put forward—namely, that the Passover Sabbath might be saved from desecration—and, although their insatiable hatred may have made them suggest clubbing as the mode by which His death should be hastened, we need not question that their scruples were genuine. It is an extraordinary instance of the game of self-deception which the human conscience can play. Here were people fresh from the greatest crime ever committed—their hands still reeking, one might say, with the blood of the Innocent—and their consciences, while utterly untouched with remorse for this crime, are anxious about the observance of the Sabbath and the ceremonial defilement of the soil. It is the most extraordinary illustration which history records of how zeal for what may be called the body of religion may be utterly destitute of any connection with its spirit. It is surely a solemn warning to make sure that every outward religious act is accompanied by the genuine outgoing of the heart to God, and a warning that, if we love not our brother, whom we have seen, neither can we be lovers of God, whom we have not seen.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse