In the church of my youth, there was a commonly shared assumption that if any one of us had been present at the crucifixion of Jesus, we would have been jeering along with the crowd. This idea was captured in the words of a popular worship song/hymn, How Deep the Father’s Love for Us (by Stuart Townend), which contains the verse:
Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers
We would sing this song, quietly judging ourselves and considering it worship.
Similarly, I was taught that the disciples abandoned Jesus entirely, using Peter’s betrayal as the prime example. Again, it was considered unquestionably true that if we had been among them, we would have hidden or fled, or denied Jesus as Peter did. In fact, Jesus was only betrayed by two disciples – Judas and Peter. Of the living disciples, only Peter needed restoring to his position after the resurrection, implying that he was the only one among the eleven who had truly betrayed Jesus. It is true that the whole group of disciples fled when Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane, but only after Peter had attacked the soldiers and been rebuked by Jesus, who made it clear he didn’t want physical defence, saying that he could summon 12 legions of angels if he chose to. In panic and confusion they rushed from the military force, but that was not the end of it. Certainly, John remained faithful, standing at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the wife of Clopas. John 19:25-27
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.
Similarly, Joseph of Arimathea was not afraid of showing his devotion to Jesus. Mark 15:43,46
Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin who was himself looking forward to the kingdom of God, came and boldly went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’s body…. After he bought some linen cloth, Joseph took him down and wrapped him in the linen.
Why do we assume that we’d be like Peter instead of John, the three Marys, or Joseph? Even worse, why do we assume that we’d be among the scoffers? To me, this all stinks of the most dreadful disease to infect Christian doctrine – Calvinism, which is far more concerned with sin than with Christ, and full of hellish deceit that makes human beings despise and turn on themselves. I wrote a series on this a while ago, the first instalment of which can be found here. Please, if your faith is heavy and condemning, read this series.
Calvinism argues that we are all completely, 100% depraved, without any good in us. It fails to consider that despite our flaws and failures, each one of us is made in the image of God, which means we are fundamentally beautiful. Salvation then, is not the cloaking of hideousness; it is the restoration of a divine masterpiece.
Lifting our eyes to Jesus
Let’s stop the navel gazing and self-judgement and look instead on the beautiful heart of Jesus. Even in the direst of circumstances, he was swayed by compassion. The first example I have already shared, when concern for his mother and best friend’s loss and grief led him to ask them to embrace the other as family.
The second is the criminal on the cross, who I think we have to accept as the first entrant into the Kingdom of Heaven. Luke 23:39-43
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’
But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’
The criminal had a moment of revelation, seeing Jesus for who he is – God Almighty! This is the power of the Holy Spirit; opening eyes, speaking to hearts, convicting of the truth, and empowering us to choose faith! In the midst of his own extraordinary spiritual and physical suffering, Jesus made emotional room for this man, prophesying his salvation and including him as a member of the divine family.
Lastly, there is the greatest demonstration of Jesus’ beautiful compassion. Though scores of people lined up to mock him in his agony, though he suffered in his spirit far beyond the physical affliction of the cross, though what happened was profoundly unnatural and wrong – creation despising, torturing, mocking, and murdering its loving creator – his heart chimed with a single, crystalline note. Luke 23:24
Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.
In that moment, his heart interceded for all caught up in the mob, laying a blanket of grace across the whole scene.
This is what I see when I look at the cross. I don’t have any emotion or thought to spare for myself, and whether I would have been like John or like Peter, like the criminal on the cross or like the scoffers. Why are we considering ourselves at all, and why when we do, are we judging ourselves so miserably?
Lord Jesus, let us lift our gaze from ourselves and turn it upon you. Let us behold the overwhelming tide of your compassion and mercy, which changed the world forever. Let us adore and worship you for your love, and humble ourselves to embody all that you are. Thank you, sweet Lord, for the cross.