Windows on the Crucifixion

I love photography and, although I’m not a great photographer, I have learned some of the secrets of capturing a scene or portrait effectively: the most important being to choose angles that allow the details to stand out clearly.

When it comes to understanding the cross of Christ, the Gospel writers employ a very similar principle. They all record the same event, but each provides his own distinctive perspective – John as an eyewitness, the Synoptic authors through the testimony of others. But together their combined accounts provide us with the canonical history of what took place, written in a way that allows the details to begin to interpret the event as a whole.

So, even though the full exposition of this pivotal moment in the history of redemption is found in the Old Testament prelude to the event and the apostolic message of Acts, the Letters and Revelation, the cross itself sheds its own distinctive light on what Christ accomplished through it.

In Luke’s account of Calvary there are at least six distinctive angles that stand out from the accounts given by his fellow Evangelists. Each provides a ‘window’ that sheds significant light on this, the darkest moment of history.

The first is on the state of our world (Lk 23.25-31). As Jesus sets out on that final journey along the Via Dolorosa towards the place of execution, Luke draws attention to details that are absent from the parallel accounts. Although he mentions Simon of Cyrene, it is almost in passing and largely to acknowledge the extremity of Jesus’ physical state by that time. And although he notes with the other Gospels that crowds gathered to watch this spectacle, Luke homes in on the significant numbers of women among them. In part this tallies with the particular interest Luke has shown throughout his Gospel in the role of women in the ministry of Christ. But here it is not just their understandable grief and concern for him that becomes the focus; but, rather, what Jesus says to them. He tells them not to weep for him, but for themselves and their children (23.28-31). His last word to them comes in the form of a proverb: ‘For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will they do when it is dry?’ (23.31). If this is how humanity behaves when it is face to face with the incarnation of God’s goodness in Christ, of what is it capable when the divine presence is withdrawn? Against all the protestations of the fundamental goodness of humanity today, the cross exposes the ugly truth about our world.

The second window is on Christ’s love for his enemies. Luke alone records Jesus’ prayer from the cross: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. Commentators and theologians have argued over who the ‘them’ in the crowd that day might be, but there is no definitive answer. However, John Calvin offers a helpful observation:

Christ gave evidence he was that mild and gentle lamb…for not only does he abstain from revenge, but pleads with God the Father for salvation of them by whom he was most cruelly tormented. He prays that God would forgive his enemies.[1]

Everything Jesus was doing that day was ultimately for those who were by nature and by choice the enemies of God.

Thirdly Luke sheds light on the glorious irony of the insults that were hurled against our Lord. He is not alone in drawing attention to them, but he does so in a way that shows a different aspect to them. The rulers’ taunt: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” The soldiers’ mockery, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” And the written charge: “this is the king of the jews.” It wasn’t merely that they all stung uniquely because they contained words of truth; but because, if Jesus had chosen to save himself at that moment, then they would not have been true! Indeed, it could be argued for a variety of reasons that if Christ had chosen to abandon his God-given mission at that point, he would have ungodded himself. So in a perverse, but glorious way, the very insults inspired by Satan, the arch-mocker were a declaration of the gospel itself.

The fourth window Luke opens is on the breath-taking grace of salvation. Along with the other Gospel writers, Luke mentions the two criminals on either side of Christ; but Luke alone records the conversion of one. And the language Jesus uses to assure this man of his new state is among the sweetest found anywhere in Scripture: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ (23.43). Even though they were impaled on death instruments that were synonymous with the divine anathema, they would end that day in the place of benediction. There really is no one too bad and it really never is too late to turn to Christ and find salvation.

Fifthly, the signs that explain the cross (23.44-49). There were four in all, but Luke homes in on two: the darkness and the tearing of the curtain in the temple. These were not only signs from heaven designed to attest the divine significance of what was happening on earth, but were also intended to give a provisional explanation of what was happening. This seeming nadir of meaninglessness in this world could not be more full of meaning. The darkness had multi-faceted significance; but it graphically demonstrated that God has ultimately dealt with the darkness of this age by his Son’s going to its very heart on the cross. But the fact the darkness lifted in the moments before Jesus’ final cry, ‘Father, you’re your hands I commit my spirit’ (23.46) and that all this coincided with the tearing of the curtain in the temple (23.45) sheds extraordinary light on what had been achieved. There is every reason to believe that the curtain in question was the heavy curtain barring access to the Most Holy Place for all people except for the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. Jesus, ‘the Great High Priest after the order of Melchizedek’ had made atonement once-and-for-all in the place of his people and the way to God was now open through him.

Finally there was Jesus’ burial (23.50-56). Is this merely an incidental detail? Hardly, given that St Paul includes it as an ‘of first importance’ doctrine (1Co 15.4) and highlights its saving significance (Ro 6.4) and that it is included as an article of faith in the Apostles’ Creed. It is the glorious full stop to the record of the cross. The form of execution that embodied shame, humiliation, condemnation and curse was normally followed by the denial of burial for the corpses of the deceased. Often they would have been abandoned in a public place – the final symbol of disgrace, to decay under the elements and be eaten by carrion birds and animals. But not so for Jesus: he was formally and officially granted a burial with high honour. Something the Jews would not have failed to notice. Despite the best efforts of the authorities to have him literally anathematized, he was laid to rest in a way that spoke of the divine favour at the very end.

One of the beauties of photographs is that they open windows on their subjects in a way that can be savoured. That’s why we keep them in albums and display them in galleries. I wonder if there should not be some kind of Reformed resurrection of the Mediaeval practice of contemplation of the cross. For we can never appreciate it too much and there is far more to it than we will ever grasp.

[1] Calvin, J. Commentaries Vol 17 (Baker Book House; Grand Rapids, MI) p. 300


Mark Johnston