Beholding Christ

For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.
~ Psalm 22:16

And Pilate marvelled if he were already dead: and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been any while dead. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.
~ Mark 15:44, Matthew 27:54

Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole.
~ Acts 4:10

Beholding the Crucified Christ, by Arthur Pink. 1911.

And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots. And sitting down they watched him there;
~ Matthew 27:35-36

The reference is to the Roman soldiers, as is clear from John 19:23, confirmed by Matthew 27:54. They were the ones authorised to carry out the death sentence which had been passed by Pilate, and into their hands the governor had delivered the Saviour (Matthew 27:26, 27). With gross abuse they executed their task. Adding insult to injury, they exposed the Lord Jesus unto the indignities of a mock coronation—robing Him in scarlet, crowning Him with thorns, hailing Him as King of the Jews. Giving full expression to their enmity—they spat upon Him, smote Him with a reed, and mocked Him. Restoring to Him His clothing, they conducted Him to Golgotha and affixed Him to the Cross. Having gambled for His garments, they sat down to watch Him—to frustrate any attempt at rescue which His friends might make, and to wait until life was extinct. By way of introduction let us briefly take note of three things.

First, the circumstances. The initiative to murder Jesus, had been taken by the religious leaders of Israel, for there “the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus in a treacherous way and kill Him” (Matthew 26:3, 4). How many of the foulest crimes which have blackened the pages of history, were perpetrated by religious leaders!

Yet the common people were in full accord with their leaders, for “the multitude” (Mark 15:8) requested Pilate to adhere to his custom of releasing a prisoner unto them, and when he gave them the choice between Christ and Barabbas, they preferred the latter; and when the governor asked what was their desire concerning the former, they cried “Crucify Him!” (Mark 15:13). And it was to “content the people” Pilate released Barabbas (v. 15). When Pilate expostulated with them “all the people said, may His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25). And Pilate, the administrator of the Roman law, which boasted of justice, acceded to their unjust demands.

Second, the scene. This was the outskirts of Jerusalem, a city more memorable than either Rome, London or New York. This was the residence of David, the royal city, the abode of Israel’s kings. It had witnessed the magnificence of Solomon’s reign. It was here that the temple stood. It was here that the Lord Jesus had taught and wrought miracles, and into which He had ridden a few days earlier seated upon a donkey, the multitudes crying, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9), so fickle is human nature! Israel had rejected their King and therefore He was conducted beyond the bounds of the city, so that He “suffered outside the gate” (Heb. 13:12). The actual place of the crucifixion was Golgotha which signified “the place of a skull.” Nature had anticipated the awful deed, the very contour of the ground resembling a ‘skull’. Luke gives the Gentile name “Calvary” (23:33), for the guilt of that Death rested on both Jew and Gentile, as its saving efficacy was to be experienced by each.

Third, the time. This was as significant and suggestive as the historical and topographical associations of the place itself. Christ was crucified on the fourteenth of Nissan, or about the beginning of April. It was the first of Israel’s great national feasts—the most important season in the Jewish year. It was the Passover, when solemn celebration was made of that night—when all the firstborn sons of the Hebrews were spared from the angel of death in the land of Egypt. At this season, Jerusalem was thronged by immense multitudes, for it was one of the three annual occasions when every male Israelite was commanded to appear before Jehovah in the temple (Deut. 16:16). Thus, huge crowds had journeyed there from all parts of the land. It was in no obscure corner, nor in secret, that the Great Sacrifice was offered up to God. And the fourteenth of Nissan was the day appointed for it, for the Lord Jesus was the antitypical Lamb, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). On no other day could He be slain—at an earlier date they “sought to take Him—but no man laid hands upon Him, because His hour was not yet come” (John 7:30).

“They crucified Him….and sitting down they watched Him there.”

My divisions will be simple—
what they saw;
what I see;
what do you see?

I. What they saw.

1. They beheld the most amazing event of all history, the most awe-inspiring spectacle ever set before the eyes of men, the most tragic and yet the most glorious deed ever performed. They beheld God incarnate taken by wicked hands and slain—yet at the same time the Redeemer voluntarily laying down His life for those who have forfeited every claim upon Him. To those soldiers it was an ordinary event—the execution of a criminal. And thus it is with most of those who hear the Gospel—it falls upon their ears as a religious commonplace. To those Roman soldiers, at least for awhile, Christ appeared to them only as a dying Jew. Thus it is with the multitude today—to them the Lamb of God possesses neither form nor loveliness, and when He is set before them in the mirror of the Word—they see in Him no beauty that they should desire Him. His peerless Person has no attraction for them—His righteous claims are disregarded—His sceptre is flouted—for His atoning blood, they feel no need.

2. They beheld the incomparable perfections of the crucified One. How immeasurably different the deportment of the suffering Saviour—from what they had witnessed from others in similar circumstances! No cursing of His lot, no reviling of His enemies, no maledictions upon themselves. The very reverse—His lips are engaged in prayer! “Father,” He says, “forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). How amazed they must have been—as they heard that Blessed One on the tree making “intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). The two thieves who were crucified with Him mocked the Redeemer (Matthew 27:44), but at the eleventh hour one of them was “granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18) and turning to Jesus he said, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The Lord did not decline his appeal and say he had sinned beyond the reach of mercy but answered, “Truly, I say unto you, Today shall you be with Me in Paradise” (v. 43). Thus they witnessed an unparalleled display of sovereign grace unto one of the greatest of sinners.

3. They beheld most mysterious phenomena. They had sat down to “watch Him,” but after a while they were no longer able to do so. At midday—it suddenly became as midnight, “At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock” (Matthew 27:45). It was as though the sun refused to shine on such a scene, as though nature itself was mourning over such a sight! During those three hours, there a transaction took place between Christ and God, which was infinitely too sacred for finite eyes to gaze upon—a mystery which no mortal mind can fully enter into. As soon as the Saviour committed His spirit into the hands of the Father, “At that moment the curtain in the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, rocks split apart, and tombs opened!” (Matthew 27:51). No ordinary sufferer was this. It was the Creator of Heaven and earth expiring—and Heaven and earth here expressed their sympathy.

4. They beheld and heard that which was blessed to their conviction and conversion. Pharaoh witnessed the most remarkable display of God’s power in the plagues which He sent upon Egypt—but so far from inclining him to repentance, he continued to harden his heart. Thus it ever is with the unregenerate, while then are left to themselves—neither the most astonishing tokens of God’s goodness nor the most awe-inspiring of His judgments melt or move them. But in the case before us, God was pleased to soften the callous hearts of these Roman soldiers and illumine their heathen minds, for we are informed, “The Roman officer and the other soldiers at the crucifixion were terrified by the earthquake and all that had happened. They said, ‘Truly, this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).

Personally we regard this as another of the miracles which took place at Calvary—a miracle of amazing grace, and it is our expectation to meet in Heaven—the very man who hammered the nails into the Saviour’s hands and feet, and thrust the spear into His side—God’s answer to Christ’s prayer, “Father, forgive them.” Thus there is hope for the vilest sinner out of Hell—if he will surrender to the Lordship of Christ and trust in His all-sufficient blood.

II. What I see.

1. I perceive here, an unveiling of the character of man. “But everything exposed by the light becomes visible” (Eph. 5:13). Now Christ is “the true light” (John 1:9), the essential, Divine, all-revealing light; consequently all men and all things stood exposed in His presence. The worst things predicated in Scripture of fallen human nature, were verified and exemplified in the days of Christ. God says that the heart of man is “desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9), and it was demonstrated to be such by the treatment meted out to His beloved Son. Scarcely was He born into this world—than a determined effort was made to slay Him. Though He constantly went about doing good, relieving the distressed and ministering to both the souls and bodies of the needy—yet so little was He appreciated that He had to say, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air nests—but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20). On one occasion, “they pleaded with him to leave their region” (Matthew 8:34).

But not only was Christ unwelcome here—men hated Him—and that “without a cause” (John 15:25). He gave them every reason to admire and adore Him—but they had an inveterate detestation of Him. The Word of Truth declares, that “the carnal mind is enmity against God” (Romans 8:7). Men do not believe it—in fact most of them pretend the very opposite. Nevertheless, at Calvary—they gave proof of their hatred of God. Multitudes go through the form of paying homage to God—but it is a “god” of their own imagination. They hate the true and living God, and were it possible—they would rid the universe of His existence. This is clear from their treatment of Christ, for He was none other than “God manifest in flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16) and Him they hated and hounded to death, and nothing short of His cruel death by crucifixion would appease them. Here at Calvary the real character of man was revealed and the desperate wickedness of his heart laid bare. There it was shown that he was capable of the blackest of all crimes. Then let us not be surprised that the history of mankind is written in tears and blood.

2. I perceive here, an unveiling of sin. Sin! that “abominable thing” which the Lord hates (Jer. 44:4), but which is regarded so lightly by those who commit it. Sin! which caused our first parents to be banished from Eden and which is responsible for all the want and woe that is in the world. Sin! which produces strife and bloodshed and has turned this “land of the living” into a mammoth cemetery! Sin! that hideous monster we so much dislike hearing about—and which we are so ready to gloss over and excuse. Sin! over which Satan employs all his subtle arts to render attractive, setting it forth in the most appealing colors and winsome garbs.

One of the great designs of the Incarnation was to bring to light the hidden things of darkness. The personal presence here of the Holy One acted like a brilliant light being turned on in a long-neglected room, revealing its squalor and filth. “If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin—but now they have no cloak for their sin” (John 15:22).

In the passage just quoted Christ was speaking comparatively. As evil as man had shown himself all through his history—the coming of Immanuel to this earth brought sin to such a head—that all that which had gone before, was relatively but a trifling thing when compared with the monstrous wickedness which was done against Love incarnate. In the treatment which the Son of God received at the hands of men—we see sin in its true colors, stripped of a disguise, exposed in its hideous reality, revealed in its true nature as contempt of God, and rebellion against Him. Here at Calvary we behold the climax of sin—and the fearful and horrible lengths to which it is capable of going! That which germinated in Eden—culminated in the crucifixion! The first sin occasioned spiritual suicide; the second sin took the form of fratricide (Cain murdering his brother), but here at Calvary—we see sin at it’s apex—Deicide—in the slaying of the Lord of Glory! We see also the fearful wages which sin pays—death, departure from God. Since Christ hung there as the Sin-bearer of all who believe in Him—He received the punishment which was due unto them.

3. I perceive an unveiling of the character of God. The heavens declare His glory and the firmament shows His handiwork—but nowhere are His perfections more solemnly and illustriously displayed, than at the Cross.

See here His ineffable holiness. The holiness of God is the delight He has in all that is pure and lovely, and therefore does His nature abominate and burn against whatever is evil. God hates sin wherever it is found and He made no exception of Christ when He beheld it lying by imputation upon His beloved Son. There God had “laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6), that is, all His people—He dealt with Him accordingly, pouring out His holy wrath upon Him. God is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on iniquity” (Hab. 1:13) and therefore did He turn His back upon the Sin-bearer. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” the suffering Saviour cried, and then answered His own query, “You are holy” (Psalm 22:1, 3).

See here God’s inflexible justice. The pronouncement of His Law is, “the soul that sins—it shall die” (Ezek. 18:4), and no deviation from it can be made, for Jehovah has expressly declared that He, “will by no means clear the guilty” (Exo. 34:7). But will He not make an exception of that One whom He testifies is the Lamb “without spot and without blemish” (1 Peter 1:19)? No, for though Christ was sinless both by nature and by action—yet because the sins of His people had been laid upon Him, God “spared not His own Son” (Romans 8:32). Because sin was transferred to Him, punishment must be visited upon Him, and therefore did God cry, “awake O sword against My Shepherd, against the Man who is My Fellow, says the Lord Almighty, smite the Shepherd” (Zech. 13:7). God would not abate one iota of His righteous demand or allow sentiment to sully the fair face of His government. He claims to be par excellence the Judge who is “without respect of persons” and fully was that demonstrated at Calvary by refusing to exempt the Person of His Beloved, the One in whom His soul delighted (Isaiah 42:1), when occupying the place of the guilty.

See here God’s amazing grace. “God commends His love toward us (His people) in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Had He so pleased, God could have consigned the whole of Adam’s race to everlasting woe. That is what each of us richly deserve. And why should He not do so? By nature we are depraved and corrupt; by practice incorrigible rebels—with no love for Him and no concern for His glory. But out of His own goodness and graciousness, He determined to save a people from their sin, to redeem them by Christ, “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:6). He determined to pluck them as brands from the burning, that they might be the eternal monuments of His mercy. And because it was wholly outside of their power to make atonement for their fearful crimes, He Himself provided an all-sufficient Sacrifice for them. He is “the God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10) and innumerable tokens and proofs has He given of this—but nowhere were the “riches of His grace” so lavishly and so wondrously displayed as at Calvary.

See here God’s manifold wisdom. The Word of Truth declares, “There shall never enter into it, anything that defiles, neither works abomination” (Rev. 21:27), then how is it possible that I can ever gain admittance into the heavenly Jerusalem? How can it be that one so completely devoid of righteousness as I am, and so filled with unrighteousness, could ever receive the Divine approbation? The Law says, “The soul that sins—it shall die” and I have sinned and broken the Law—how then can I escape its penalty? Since I am a spiritual pauper—how can the necessary ransom be procured?

Those are problems that no human intelligence can solve. Nor is the knot to be cut by an appeal to the bare mercy of God, for His mercy is not an attribute which overrides His justice and integrity. But at the Cross, the Divine perfections shone out in glorious unity like the blending of the colours in the rainbow—there “mercy and truth met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10). God’s justice was satisfied by Christ—and therefore His mercy flows freely to all who repent and believe. God’s grace reigns “through righteousness,” and Christ’s blood can cleanse the foulest. The wisdom of God appears in Creation and Providence; but nowhere so grandly as at the Cross.

4. I see myself. What? Yes, as I turn my gaze to the Cross—I behold myself, and so does each other who looks with the eyes of faith. Christ hung there as the Sponsor and Surety of His people, and there cannot be representation without identification. Christ identified with those whose sins He bears—believers identified with Him. In the sight of God, they are one. Christ took my place—and faith appropriates that fact. In the Person of my Substitute I satisfied every requirement of God’s Law. In the Person of Christ I paid the full price which Divine justice demanded. In the Person of Christ I stand approved before God, for I am clothed with His meritorious perfections (Isaiah 61:10). The whole ransomed Church of God can say of Christ, “He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5), “Who His own self bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). And faith individualises it and declares, “I am crucified with Christ….who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Hallelujah! What a Saviour!

III. What do you see?

I mean those of you who are unsaved.

1. You behold One whom you despise and reject. Perhaps you deny it, saying your attitude is merely negative—indifference. You err. If you are not the friend of Christ—you are His enemy. There is no third class. “He who is not with Me—is against Me” (Matthew 12:30) is His own verdict, and from that there is no appeal. You have despised His authority, flouted His laws, treated His claims with contempt. You reject His yoke and scepter, refusing to be ruled by Him. Thus you unite with those who cast Him out and hounded Him to death.

2. You behold One who is presented as Saviour. Yes, despite your wicked treatment of Him hitherto. He is set before you in the Gospel as One willing and able to heal the wounds that sin has made, and save your souls from eternal death. If you will throw down the weapons of your warfare against Him, surrender to His Lordship and trust in His redeeming blood—He will accept you now, “him that comes to Me—I will never cast out” (John 6:37). But if you refuse to do so, then—

3. You behold the One who is to be your Judge. Come to Him now as a repentant sinner, as a spiritual pauper, casting yourself upon His grace—and He will pardon your iniquities and give you a royal welcome. “Come unto Me all you that labor and are heavy laden—and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) is His own invitation and promise. But continue turning your back upon Him and He shall yet say to you, “Depart from Me, you cursed into everlasting fire, prepared for the Devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).