A man asked to see me to talk about Christianity. He told me that he believed that Jesus was a great teacher, but he didn’t seem to think that he was more than a great teacher. The other thing that he told me was that he struggled with an awful sense of guilt. Those two things are actually related. If Jesus only tells you how to live a good life, then he offers no solution for the fact that we fail to live a good life.
How do you destroy self-righteousness and pride? What is the source of Christian joy? Can God prove that he loves you? What do you do when you are overcome with feelings of guilt? How do you know that Christianity isn’t just the same as every other religion? How can you change and become more loving? Why should you forgive? The answer to each of these questions is the same: look at the cross of Jesus!
This morning we are going to look at the cross through two sets of eyes. Firstly, we are going to think about what the centurion saw when he watched Jesus die. Then, secondly, I will tell you about some of the things I see when I think about Calvary.
What did the centurion see when he saw Jesus die?
The centurion hated being stationed in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was in a relative backwater of the Roman Empire. The Jews that lived there hated the Roman occupation and despised the soldiers who enforced it.
Passover was a particularly difficult time, with pilgrims flocking to the city from far and wide. During the festival rebellious thoughts were more likely, as the people were hoping for a political messiah who would set them free.
That year there was talk of a Nazarene carpenter, who apparently claimed to be king, and had entered the city to great fanfare. However, the religious leaders had arrested him, Pilate had interviewed him, the crowds had cried for his blood, and now he was being crucified.
This centurion had overseen many crucifixions. He was only doing his job. He had no longer felt any pity, morbid fascination or even revulsion. Yet there was something about this execution that would remain with him for the rest of his life. What was it about the way Jesus died that caused him to conclude that this man was innocent and that he was the Son of God?
It wasn’t the many prophecies that were been fulfilled in even incidental events that were unfolding. The centurion was not a Jew and had not read their scriptures. He did not know that these things were written about hundreds of years before. Who was responsible for the death of Jesus? You could blame greedy Judas, the jealous religious establishment, cowardly Pilate or the easily-led crowd. We could also say that we put Jesus on the cross, for it was our sin that sent him there. But ultimately Jesus died because God had planned it. The Scriptures had foretold how God would send a substitute for his people’s guilt.
Matthew links the earthquake to the centurion’s conclusion. As well as that earthquake, there was three hours of darkness during the afternoon. It is interesting that the early opponents of Jesus didn’t deny that the darkness happened (but said it was an eclipse), and the gospels were written during the lifetime of many who would have been there.
Then there was the dignity in how Jesus died. The centurion had never seen a man pray for those who taunted him. Yet Jesus pleaded, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Even the criminals who were being crucified with him hurled abuse at him, and yet when one of them changed his mind, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness and assurance. ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ Or, what about the loving way Jesus looked down from the cross and told John to behold his mother? Even in the time of his greatest despair, he makes practical arrangements for Mary.
Then there is the manner of the death itself. At one stage Jesus cried out in despair, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ The centurion did not know that Jesus was quoting the twenty-second psalm (a psalm which also speaks of the victim’s deliverance). Jesus seemed to see purpose in his suffering, stating that the task was finished. While it was normal for the crucified to speak their final words in a weak, exhausted, muffled voice, Jesus lets out a loud cry before he dies. While the condemned normally tilted their head back to grasp for air, Jesus bowed his head and committed his spirit to God. It is as if no-one is taking his life from him but that he is giving it up himself.
Seeing all this convinced the centurion that Jesus was an innocent man and that he was the Son of God. Son of God was a title the centurion would have reserved for the Emperor. He was giving Jesus the highest praise his culture let him imagine. Job done, the centurion marches his men back to the barracks. If he survived his military service and went home to whatever part of the Roman word he was from, I imagine that he never forgot what he saw that day on the hill of Calvary.
What do you see when you look at the cross?
I see the centre-piece of our faith. The apostle Paul can sum up his preaching saying, ‘I preach Christ crucified.’ The risen Jesus told a couple of the disciples, on the road to Emmaus, that the whole of the Bible pointed to him, and his death and resurrection. If the cross is not at the centre of your religion, then you religion is not that of the Bible.
I see justice. I was doing a questionnaire with some of the small groups in our last church. These were good Christian people. I asked them what attributes come to find when they think of God. I was surprised that no-one mentioned holiness. The heavenly chorus cries, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty.’ How can a perfectly holy God, who will not tolerate our evil, accept us as his sons and daughters? Only through the cross! At the cross, God shows that he is both just and the one who justifies the ungodly.
I see a sacrifice of infinite worth. Not only is Jesus a sufficient price for your sin, he is a sufficient price for the sins of the world. Indeed, he is a sufficient price for the sins of a million worlds. If all the sins of everyone in this room were lumped on your shoulders, Jesus’ death is enough for you. Your sins are viler than you have imagined, but never dishonour the sacrifice of the Son of God by claiming that they are too great to be covered by his blood. No matter what you have done, you can have confidence in his forgiveness and joy in his grace.
But I also see a sacrifice of definite value. The Son knew those that he would purchase for the Father. This is an actual payment for actual sin—our sin, past, present and future. This is personal. The apostle Paul could speak of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Finally, I see love. This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and gave his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. ‘Unless you are assured God loves you, it is pretty hard to do anything in the Christian life’ (Jack Miller). We are told to behold (look and see) the love of God for us. This beholding is life-changing. We love because he first loved us. Our love is a response to his far greater love. So, as I said a number of months ago, ‘your problem is not that you don’t love God enough, but that you fail to see how much he loves you.’ Behold your saviour upon the cross.