AROUND THE CROSS
The men and women of the crucifixion
Outside Jerusalem on a hill called Calvary, Jesus was nailed to a Roman cross where, for hours, he hung between time and eternity. And when he finally gave up his life–when he breathed his last breath–he became that lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world. Three days later, he rose from the dead…taking death captive and enabling us to live–truly live–in time now and, one day, in eternity.
Family, friends and strangers witnessed his death. Some gave him comfort. Some caused him pain. All touched his life, even as he touched theirs. Below are a sampling of those who gathered around the cross and who witnessed–or participated in–the death of the Christ.
Herod…Second surviving son of Herod the Great who had ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth, is described as “idle, vicious, and extravagant.” Ruler of Galilee and Perea, he was in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover.
Caiaphas…was the Jewish priest by whose calculation and cunning Jesus was arrested, convicted, and crucified by the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. As it was customary for this office to descend through families, who then controlled all the lucrative positions in the Temple, such a family constituted the religious and political leadership of the nation. Caiaphas presided at the Sanhedrin’s trial of Jesus.
Caiaphas’ people had tried again and again to trap Jesus into self-conviction, and had begun to fear that if everyone continued to believe in him, the Romans would come and destroy both their holy place and their nation. They plotted to hand Jesus over to the Roman authorities, label him guilty of treason, and let the Romans deal with him. Only a fear of the common people prevented them from having Jesus arrested when he drove the money-changers from the Temple.
Upon Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, they realized it was “now or never.” All aspects of Jesus’ arrest and trial were illegal: the arrest and trial at night, and the intervention of Caiaphas himself when the charges failed.
The conviction for blasphemy in the Sanhedrin was disregarded in favor of the more appealing charge of treason, when the case was referred to Pilate.
Pilate…was the fifth Roman procurator of Judea, Samaria and Idumea, not a very coveted post, and he was responsible to the Emperor himself. Over all but Roman citizens, his power was absolute. Pilate ran into troubles with the Jews from the first, when he placed images of the Emperor around the square, overlooking the Temple. Defied by the populace, he gave in and removed the images. Another incident was his raiding of the Temple treasury for the building of an aqueduct. Protesting Jews were put down, but the result was censure from Rome. It is suspected that Caiaphas had informed Rome of this difficulty.
When Jesus was convicted of blasphemy and brought before the Roman court, Pilate at first saw no reason to execute him. Hearing that Jesus was a Galilean, he grasped the opportunity to pass the prisoner over to Herod Antipas, who happened to be in his castle at Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Herod, however, was more aware of the political and ecclesiastical issues involved in the case than Pilate and, after making a fool of the prisoner, returned him to Pilate.
Barabbas, a robber, was up for trial at the same time. Pilate attempted a second time to free the prisoner, saying he found him not guilty of any of the charges. Mindful of the traditional Passover amnesty, he offered to spare Jesus. The crowd, whipped up by the accusations of the priests, demanded that Barabbas be spared and Jesus crucified. Luke’s picture of Pilate is of a humane judge, unable to resist the pressure of the angry and riotous crowds. He signed the death warrant and turned the prisoner over for crucifixion.
Judas Iscariot…traitor, thief, betrayer…he delivered Jesus to the Romans by his kiss (selling him for 30 pieces of silver, the price of a slave)…and so began the nightmare of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution. At the end, unable to live with the consequences of his actions–hounded by guilt and despair–he committed suicide by hanging himself (after first telling the priests, “I have sinned, in that I have betrayed innocent blood!”) He will forever be defined by his treachery. Sadly, in killing himself before he could see the risen Lord, he never had a chance to discover that his horrible sin had been used by God to further saving purposes. His sin was awful, but not so awful to place him out of reach of God’s love.
But, who was Judas before he betrayed Jesus? The only one of the disciples who was not a Galilean–he was from Kerioth, a town in southern Judea–he was an outsider from the start. A man who apparently had business abilities, he was the treasurer, the one who “kept the purse”…and also pilfered from it. He was, perhaps, the most nationalistic of the group, and quick to realize Jesus’ potential as the long-awaited Messiah. We’ll never know if he acted out of a desire to force Jesus into declaring himself Messiah at the height of the Passover feast (when support was at hand) or whether he was seeking revenge for deep personal disappointment and frustration. Regardless, he fulfilled Jesus words on the road to Jerusalem that “The Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” Someone had to do it to fulfill Scripture. The question remains, how could anyone who had walked with Jesus, talked with him, eaten with him, and watched him work, betray him?
Centurion…“Certainly this man was innocent!” the centurion exclaimed. “Surely this man was the Son of God!” These statements came from one who was not easily impressed or fooled. As the commander of the Roman execution squad, a campaign-hardened professional soldier, he had seen it all–to him, one death was like another. And yet, to him this death was not like the others. He had possibly observed Jesus the whole time he was in custody–from his trial, to the scourging, the mocking, laboring with the weight of his cross to Golgotha, being stripped and nailed to the cross. He was a mana soldier in charge of one hundred men–who was trained in the hard school of courage, endurance and fortitude. And yet…he called out, “Truly this was the Son of God!” He gives us the only eye-witness account of Jesus’ conduct up to the moment of his death. He allows himself bravely and honestly to be heard–in complete insubordination, contradicting and criticizing his superior authority, the Roman government.
Thief…Three crosses on a hill, three men writhing in agony…a slow and painful execution by Roman soldiers was not an uncommon sight in Jesus’ day. To the casual passer-by, the sight of these three, Jesus and the two thieves, did not seem out of the ordinary. And yet…it was the most extraordinary event of all time.
The son of God was crucified between two common thieves. One thief realized who Jesus was and asked, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!” uttering the last kind words Jesus heard before he died. He had heard Jesus words of forgiveness “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34); he heard Jesus recite the opening words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34). Perhaps he remembered the rest of the Psalm that he himself had chanted many times at synagogue as a young man. Finally, he understood that Jesus was the Christ.
But even then he did not ask to be delivered from his punishment. He simply asked to be remembered as one who came to his senses too late to make amends for his sins. Jesus responded” “I am telling you this on my own honor: this very day you will join me in paradise.”
Their reunion later that day must have been quite an event.
Simon Peter …this simple fisherman plays an integral role in the crucifixion drama. For three years he followed Jesus, and was known for his impulsiveness in both word and action. Eager, impetuous and self-reliant, Peter was looked upon as the leader of the the twelve disciples. But, as events unfold, he struggles to understand and make sense of his crumbling beliefs. His devotion to Jesus is obvious. Peter is the only one to make an effort to rescue Jesus from the arresting soldiers in the garden. To his amazement, Jesus refuses to be rescued. At this point Peter’s world begins to spin out of control. His understanding of the Messiah was as the conquering King, not the servant who came to die. Peter had left all he’d known – family, livelihood, home – to follow Jesus. Now his Lord was being sentenced to death. The range of emotions Peter experienced was debilitating. As he followed the crowd to Jesus’ interrogation fear, despair and feelings of failure grew. His desire was for Jesus to be the champion, to overcome and take his place as Messiah. Peter saw this vision shatter. Was his choice to follow Jesus a huge mistake? He had nowhere to turn. The other disciples had fled. He turned his back. Three times he said he did not know the Nazarene. His denial brought this strong, proud man to a place of utter helplessness. No longer could he rely solely on himself. But, who else was there to turn to?
John…the youngest of the disciples was the only one of the twelve to actually be present at the crucifixion. Having fled in fear the night before, John made his way to Golgotha to witness Jesus’ death. Often referred to the “disciple Jesus loved,” John was one of the closest to Jesus during his public ministry. This intimacy drew him to the cross. He chose to be present, though there was little he could do. He may have comforted the women who came to minister to Jesus, or perhaps he simply stood vigil as the hours passed. It was important for him to be there for his friend, his Rabbi, his teacher. Jesus was aware that John was there. From the cross he recognized John and committed Mary to the young man’s care. Jesus was the oldest male member of Mary’s household and as such was responsible for his mother. His brothers were not believers. One of his last acts was to entrust Mary’s well being to John saying “Here is your mother.” Scripture records that from then on the disciple took her into his home.
Mary the mother of Jesus…from before his birth, Mary had an acute awareness of Jesus’ deity. Scripture tells us that many things were “treasured in the heart” in regard to his life and the things he did. Still, the shadow of the cross loomed, and she knew it. Here she witnesses the death of her son with an awareness of his life that few have. Her understanding of the events was probably deeper than even the disciples’. The crucifixion was for her the culmination of a life, the inevitable outcome she had known about from the beginning. Perhaps this event brought with it a certain amount of relief, completion, a knowing that events long ago foretold were now finished. Yet, her heart was crushed at the severity of the pain and torture her first born endured. We see her as both mother and faithful disciple, here as much for Jesus as for herself. Of all those gathered, Mary is the one with the most hope and the deepest pain.
Mary Magdalene…Another Mary is present at the crucifixion, perhaps standing alone, a short distance away. Mary Magdalene, the one forgiven by Jesus, the one who anointed him with the costly perfume. Did she know at that time she was preparing him for this moment? It may have been simply an act of gratitude from a thankful heart. Mary had experienced something she previously knew little about: forgiveness and acceptance. Her life had been renewed. She had been touched by the Messiah and she experienced a change. A change of attitude, a change of heart and a new hope. Now, the man who had given her a new life was hanging on a Roman cross, condemned, ridiculed. She was confused, distraught, swept into circumstances she didn’t understand. Everything had happened so fast. Mary was a social outcast unable to turn to others for comfort. Where would she go, what would she do? Who could explain to her what was happening?
The Christ…Jesus was the center of the drama on Calvary. He was the focus of the crowd, of the abuse, of the derision. His crucifixion provided entertainment for some, a day’s work for others, and pain and sorrow for those who loved him.
He foretold his own death, as recorded in the gospel of Mark: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles: and they will mock him and spit upon him and scourge him, and kill him: and after three days he will rise.”
Yet, God reigned supreme. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). On the cross, Jesus drew all to him: the thief, the centurion, the Marys, Peter and John…he would have drawn Judas, no doubt, had he let him. And even today, in this dawn of the new millennium nearly 2000 years after his death and resurrection, he draws us still–Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, the son of God…the same yesterday, today and forever.
–Written by Frances Dingman, Kevin Dobruck, and