In their accounts of the crucifixion, the Gospel writers focus not on the horrific details of Jesus’ anguish, but on the reason for His suffering. In this message, Alistair Begg teaches that though we long to be restored to relationship with God, our attempts to fix things, mixed with sin as they are, only make matters worse. Jesus’ death on the cross, however, brings us a great exchange: his righteousness and forgiveness for our sin.
Father, as we prepare to study the Bible, we ask for your help so that we can both understand and obey, and so that we may be caught up again in this wonderful transaction, this amazing dialogue, between the Spirit of God and our own needy hearts. For this we humbly plead, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Please be seated. And I invite you to turn to Luke 23:33, four words: “There they crucified him.” Three words in Greek, ekei estaurosan auton. “There,” estaurosan, “they crucified,” auton, “him.” Three words after all this time? After all of the expectation? After the fact that the Gospel of Luke has literally been pulsating with the expectation of the cross? That the shadow across the horizon of Jesus, in all of its awful prospect, has now become a dreadful reality. And the words that Jesus had spoken—the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the rulers, and that he must be killed—has now come to dawning realization. That again, he said to them, “First he must suffer many things” and then “be rejected by this generation.” And how, in breaking bread with them, as Luke sets the context of the Passover meal, he says, “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.” And those of us who’ve been studying Luke’s Gospel have been confronted by this sense of divine necessity as Jesus moves inexorably towards the cross.
And what I think you have picked up on from the last couple of studies is that I, in my own study, have been forcibly struck by the way in which the Gospel writers, without exception, tackle the issue of the crucifixion. Luke, along with Matthew and Mark and John, does not dwell on the manner in which Jesus was crucified. Indeed, if you search the Gospels—and I commend the exercise to you—you will realize that there are virtually no details of Christ’s physical suffering.
Now, given that everything was moving towards the cross, given all that has been said in prospect of the cross, don’t you think that that should strike us? Don’t you think that’s worthy of note, that it is worthy of consideration? Don’t you think, if you like, it demands an explanation, at least for the fertile mind, to say, “I wonder why it is that when we finally reach this pivotal event in human history, all that we have are three words, or four words, ‘There they crucified him’?”
Now, presumably the Gospel writers understood what others have faced—namely, that if they focused primarily on the physical sufferings of Jesus, then the reader could very readily stop at that. The reader could very quickly look at the scene as it was described and mistakenly think that once I have been gripped by, stirred, moved, succumbed to this dreadful scene, that I have grasped the nettle of it—when in point of fact, to focus on the outward aspects, the physicality of it, if you like, may be in fact to overlook the very deepest dimensions of what the writer is conveying.
Now, of course, this runs contrary to Christian art—contemporary religious art, at least. When I say “contemporary,” I mean in the last couple hundred years, three hundred years or so. It is almost all inevitably focused on the physical sufferings of Jesus. But clearly, sympathy for Jesus as the perfect sufferer stops short of faith in Jesus as the perfect Savior. A focus on Jesus as the perfect sufferer does not inevitably take a man or a woman to faith in Jesus as the perfect Savior. And it is for that reason, presumably, that the witnesses, the Gospel writers, these evangelists, have not sought to answer the question “What was his suffering like?” but have essentially been addressing the question “What did his suffering achieve?” In other words, what was the purpose of these events as opposed to a preoccupation with the passion itself?
Now, I find it equally illuminating that when we go into the Acts of the Apostles, and when we go into the Epistles, primarily, we discover that the writers there are doing the same thing. You will search in vain in any of the Letters for some detailed description of the sufferings of Jesus. Given what a horrifying and graphic impact it had on the people themselves—albeit that they were familiar with this as a form of execution—would we not expect that somewhere you turned a page, and either John or James, the brother of Jesus, or Peter himself gave us this great explication of the sufferings and said, “Oh, how dreadful it was! And this is what happened next, and the blood was here, and it flowed there,” and, if you like, put the whole thing into slow motion for a moment and confront us with the awful agony of it.
But they don’t do it! Nobody does it! Religious art does it. Mel Gibson has done it, as we’re about to see. But the Bible doesn’t do it. All it gives to us are these great summary statements. “He himself bore our sins in his [own] body on the tree.” Or, in our memory verse from two weeks ago—want to try it? Brave enough to try it? If it was Sunday school, I’d call somebody forward and give them a prize. First Peter 3:18. Say it with me: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Or, if you like, in 2 Corinthians: “He who was rich for our sakes became poor.” Doesn’t say, “He who was rich became poor.” That may simply induce sympathy: “What a sorry tale that somebody who had so much and lived in heaven should come down here and end up with nothing. Oh, I feel dreadful about that!” We may feel all kinds of sympathy in relationship to that story. But the very fact that the middle words are there is the significance of it all. He was rich, he who was rich, “for our sakes” became poor. And “for our sakes,” you see, is the issue. It is the achievement of the cross. It is the purpose of the cross.
Throughout the pages of Scripture—indeed, from the very beginning of it all, in the book of Genesis, when man sins and turns his back on God—the issue is atonement. Atonement. If you find that a difficult word, just break it into three: at-one-ment, or two with a bit on the end, a suffix. At-one-ment. Atonement means to bring reconciliation to those who are alienated from one another. Man is alienated from God by nature on account of his disobedience and his sin. Man recognizes that sin needs to be atoned for; conscience tells him so. But man also recognizes that he actually doesn’t have the power to atone for his sins, and there’s no acceptance with God apart from atonement. And since there’s sin even in the best things that we do, any hope of making amends will actually only increase our guilt and deepen our predicament. Therefore, it is foolish for a man or a woman to try and establish their own righteousness before God—to take, if you like, the religious road; to say, “By my doing and by my trying and by my outbesting my neighbors, perhaps I can deal with this alienation that I experience deep within me. Perhaps I can be reconciled to God. Perhaps I can effect my own atonement.”
Paul says, in his great diatribe in Romans, he says you shouldn’t even try it. The whole world is accountable before God. The door is shut up along that journey. And then, again, in summary of the nature of what the cross has achieved, he says, “But now”—and listen carefully to this—“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” In other words, he says, “If you want to know about this, read your Bibles.” And “this righteousness from God comes through faith in [Christ Jesus] to all who believe. There[’s] no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. [And] God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.”
So you go back to the Gospel records and you say, “What is it that Luke is conveying here in this story? Why is it that he details things as he does?” After all, he was not himself an eyewitness. He used eyewitnesses. He conferred with eyewitness. He brought his medical training to bear investigatively, diagnostically, if you like, upon the facts as they were presented to him. And then, as an evangelist, he wrote them down in order that men and women might believe that Jesus is the Christ—not so that men and women might feel sorry for Jesus and then feel good because they felt bad! I say to you again, there is all the difference in the world between a sympathy for Jesus as the perfect sufferer and faith in Christ as our personal Savior.
One final summary statement from John: he says, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Now, as you know, I’ve tried this sermon once already this morning at eight fifteen, and I have a heading for it which actually turned out to be extraneous. The heading was “A Prayer and a Promise.” But we never got to either the prayer or the promise, and I have little prospect of bettering that now in the second hour. So what you now have is the introduction to a sermon entitled “A Prayer and a Promise,” a sermon to which we are all going to be able to look forward in the future.
My own study of this passage caused me to stand back from it. I read it and read it and read it again, and read it in different versions, and read it in paraphrases, and read it in my Greek New Testament and so on, and eventually stand back from it. And in the same way as with a picture—because these words are painting a picture; certain things stand out. And I wonder if you would agree that as you stand back from this, there are two things that seem to flash out at us. First of all, at the end of verse 34, this statement, “And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.” “They divided up his clothes by casting lots.”
Now, here is Jesus, reduced to nothing. When you go into the hospital, they take your clothes from you, and they give you one of those gowns that you can’t tie at the back to let you know that you’re now in their control. You give yourself away, and they give you a bag, and you put it in there, and hopefully you get it back. If you never get it back, if someone else gets it back, then you’ll have reason to believe that things did not go according to plan. You’ll waken up somewhere else. But every expectation is that it is only a momentary parting with your clothes, and you will be reunited sooner or later—hopefully sooner rather than later.
We talk about the fact that “he was poor, and he only had the very clothes he stood in.” We sought to reach out to people this week whose poverty is such that pretty well, that summarizes their predicament: they only have what they stand up in, perhaps a little bag with which they can carry things, but it is then to be at absolute rock bottom to be naked and unclothed and without even the clothes to cover our own shame. And Jesus here is robbed of everything—robbed of honor, robbed of his followers, robbed of his life. Yes.
And as he hangs upon the cross, he hears them saying, “No, I want the sandals.”
“No, you got the sandals from the last chap. It’s your turn for the turban.”
“I don’t want the turban.”
“And what’re we going to do with this undergarment? It’s just one huge piece.”
“Well, why don’t we throw dice for it?”
Staggering, isn’t it?
There were four soldiers that accompanied the criminal to the cross. They marched beside him. One of the perks of the job was that they got to have the belongings of the individual when he finally was placed in that dreadful position. Five pieces of clothing were normal for a Jewish individual at that time: an inner tunic, an outer robe, a girdle, sandals, and a turban. Four soldiers, five pieces. “You get this, this, this, and this, but what’re we going to do with the fifth piece?” And John gives us the details of it as they gamble so that it isn’t torn.
That’s the first thing that stood out to me. The second thing that stood out was the sign business. The sign, in verse 38. We’re so familiar with signs, aren’t we? Everywhere you go, there’s signs about this and signs about that. Well, this has been going on for a long time. And so there was a written notice here, there was a sign above the head of Christ, declaring, “This is the King of the Jews.”
Now, again there is historical precedent for this. It was customary for the executed individual either to have a sign hanging around his neck as he proceeded to the place of execution or to have another individual bearing a placard in front of the condemned man, and on that placard, or around his neck, on that sign was the declaration of his guilt, so that people could see that he was on the way to execution, and then they could read why it was that he was about to be executed.
But with Jesus, there was an immediate problem. After all, Pilate knew that he was an innocent man. It was the very innocence of Jesus that had created such a dilemma for Pilate, and he was sure that many of those who were his protagonists, Christ’s [antagonists], were equally convinced of his innocence. But they hated him. So what actually are you gonna put on the sign that eventually is placed above the individual for the people to view? Jesus had told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were of this world, my followers would fight.”
So I said to myself, “Why does Pilate put this sign up?” Does your mind work like this at all? Or are you just so familiar with this that you think you know why it’s in here? You see, the only way you’ll ever get to the Bible is if you come to the Bible and say, “I don’t know why this is in here.” “This is the King of the Jews.” Why? Why put that up, Pilate?
Well, I think there’s a way to get to this. Again it’s in John and in his detail. John says that the Jews came to Pilate and said, “We’d like to change that sign. We’d like you to put, ‘He claimed to be the king of the Jews.’ We don’t want it to read, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’” And you remember Pilate’s response? “What I have written, I have written”—in a dramatic irony, because in actual fact, what Pilate had written was true. Here is the heralded Messiah. Here is the chosen one of Israel. Here is the answer to the great dilemmas of men and women, with their tawdry little kingdoms, in a universal kingdom and an eternal kingdom over which Christ will reign. “And he shall reign for ever and ever.” Pilate is actually declaring the reality, albeit with an agenda, I think, that was to tell the Jews, “Listen, you folks have annoyed me intensely. You have forced my hand. And I’m going to put a sign up there so that when you walk past, people will be able to see the Jews are a subjected people, but they don’t have a king, because this is their king. So what kind of people are they with a king on a cross? And lest any of you should determine to produce an earthly king with views on an earthly kingdom, let this scene be a reminder to you of what the Roman authorities will do if ever you seek to rise up in insurrection. Let’s just leave it there: ‘This is the King of the Jews.’”
So the clothes are gambled for. The sign is in place. And in these verbs, Luke builds up a picture of the flavor in the crowd, the spirit that is amongst this vast arena of individuals. Let me just point the verbs out to you. Verse 35: “The people stood watching.” There’s always a crowd just standing around. And the rulers were sneering. And incidentally, look at these rulers, these tough guys. They’re talking to one another, you know: “He saved other people. Huh! Why doesn’t he go ahead and save himself if he’s the Messiah of God?” And the soldiers join in, but they mock him to his face. What have they to fear? What do they care? Similar song: “If you’re the king of the Jews, save yourself!” And finally, most staggeringly of all, verse 39: one of the criminals who is hanging there beside him begins to hurl insults at him. The Greek is graphic. He was firing this stuff at him—venom as it were, spitting out from him: “Oh, you think you’re the Messiah! If you’re the Messiah, save yourself! And while you’re at it, save us!”
Now, do you understand what’s going on here? In every instance, in each instance, the notion is that self-deliverance is the criterion for genuineness. In other words, “We’ll know that this man really is the Messiah if he saves himself. But if he doesn’t save himself, how can he possibly save anybody else?” In other words, it’s completely upside down. It is because he doesn’t save himself that he is able to save those who come unto God through him.
I think we have it clearest in the criminal’s words, because he really is expressing the crowd’s view, isn’t he? I mean, if we can put it in sort of contemporary terms, the criminal there beside him is saying, “Some Messiah you are!” I mean, try and think yourself into this. The fellow is up there; he’s a dead man. It’s only a matter of time before his breath gives out—the little platform on which his body is taking the weight so that his hands are not ripped apart by the nails that hold him to the crosspiece—and before his ribcage caves in on him and squeezes his very breath out. Can you imagine to be so close to death and use your dying breaths to say, “What kind of Messiah are you? If you’re the Messiah, why don’t you save yourself? And why don’t you save us while you’re about it?” He’s guilty of the most biting sarcasm.
Now, he’s just joining in. The rulers, in their conversation with each other, they couldn’t deny that he saved others. That’s how they started: “He saved others…” Oh yes, he did. Against what appeared to be the run of play and against their interest, some of their friends presumably had been converted by Jesus, had become followers of Jesus, had broken ranks with religious orthodoxy, had stepped away from the religious epicenter, and had hooked up with this Galilean carpenter and his ragtag bunch of friends. “He saved others. Well then, let him save himself.”
Now, lest this all seem so far away, think. This fellow is saying, “I’m not sure what the Messiah is supposed to be like, but I’m pretty certain that he shouldn’t be hanging on a cross.” You know? “I mean, I’m not gonna say that I’m a religious person and understand things. I mean, I’m a spiritual individual. And, you know, I don’t know a great deal about Messiahs, but the little I know about Messiahs, I’m pretty sure that no Messiah worth the name should be hanging up here dying.”
Is it only once a week that I hear this? That people think to reject Christ on the basis of the same warped logic? That in their arrogance they say, “Well, you know, I’m a spiritual person. I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly religious person, but I do know this: I do know that whatever this Jesus is, you can’t possibly be suggesting that the pivotal event of human history, that the answer to the dilemma of my alienation, that my brokenness and the wretchedness of our world and the deprivation of humanity and the wars of the nations and the disintegration of so much is directly answered here in this scene. I mean, it’s just silly!”
Well, yes, it is. That’s why Paul, when he makes one of his summary statements, again, he says, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” I would… I would… I was gonna say, “I would bet,” but I wouldn’t. I would imagine that there are at least some of you this morning, trapped somewhere in the middle of a row. You started off as a little uncomfortable, it’s moved to more uncomfortable, it’s now graduated to annoyance, and it’s beginning to really drive you nuts, and it’s this: “This is Thanksgiving. This is a family time. This is supposed to be a happy Sunday. And what is this character on about?” And some of you are turning it into a nationalist thing. You’re saying, “He’s from Scotland. He doesn’t understand Thanksgiving! He doesn’t even like Thanksgiving.” Listen, we invented it. You just fanned it into a flame. Where do you think you got it from? You got it from us! We came over and thanked God, and you said, “There’s an idea. We can market that!” You know, what we do routinely, you turn into a national holiday, so don’t… We can’t go there. No, no, no. It’s not that at all. I love all this stuff.
But my dear friends, listen to me. Listen to me! This is the story. And the reason that you feel awkward, annoyed, even a sense of animosity, is because of your condition. If this story is foolishness to you, it is because you are perishing. And if this story is music to your ears, it is because you’re being saved.
You see, what this criminal was doing was essentially this: he’s saying to Jesus, “Jesus, prove yourself! Get yourself out of this mess, get me out of this mess, and then I’ll believe in you.” Is it every week I hear this? “Well, as far as I’m concerned, if God looked down and saw the situation with my friend or my neighbor or my son or my daughter”—real concerns, real dangers, real difficulties, without minimizing that in any way—“if God was prepared to do this, then, if he obeyed my command, if he responded to my demands, then I was ready to believe in him. But since he didn’t, then I’ll have nothing to do with him.” That’s what this fellow’s saying.
You notice that he ignores the character of Christ, he clearly sets aside the claims of Christ, and he is apparently unmoved by the compassion of Christ. As we’ll see next time, his friend on the other side, hearing the same things, observing the same scene, comes to a different conclusion. He hears Jesus say, “Father, forgive them.” And he says, “‘Forgive them’? That’s what I need!” The other chap says, “What is that about? I’ll die before I’ll believe in this Messiah.” And die he did, without believing in him.
Don’t die in unbelief. Don’t die in unbelief. Do not die in your unbelief!
Let us pray together:
O God our Father, help us with these familiar words to be drawn afresh to your cross and to give ourselves away—to give up our bravado and our snotty intellectual arguments and all the excuses in the book for facing up to the fact that it is forgiveness that we so desperately need. And God grant that none of us may be content with a kind of condescending sympathy for a perfect sufferer, but grant that we might be brought to a comprehending faith in this wonderful Savior. For it’s in his name we pray. Amen.
 See Luke 9:22.
 Luke 17:25 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 22:7 (NIV 1984).
 1 Peter 2:24 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 8:9 (paraphrased).
 See Romans 3:19.
 Romans 3:21 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 3:22–25 (NIV 1984).
 1 John 4:10 (NIV 1984).
 John 18:36 (paraphrased).
 See John 19:21–22.
 Revelation 11:15 (KJV).
 1 Corinthians 1:18 (NIV 1984).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.