Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"ON HIS WAY TO GOLGOTHA, CHRIST’S CROSS WAS TAKEN FROM HIM FOR OUR SALVATION."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Jesus told the crowds in Mark 8 that anyone who desired to come after Jesus should take up his cross and follow Him. The imagery for the Jews was very real, and very shocking. We hear in the expression "take up your cross" the notion of bravely shouldering the trials God gives us to carry in life – be it grief or loneliness or unemployment or sickness or whatever. But the Jews who first heard Jesus speak of taking up one’s cross did not hear that notion in Jesus’ words. They were familiar instead with the cruel Roman practice of crucifying criminals – and compelling the condemned criminal to carry his own cross to the place of execution. That was Jesus’ reference in Mk 8: when He spoke of people taking up their cross, Jesus pictured them as condemned criminals on their way to execution, willingly taking their cross on their own shoulders. Doing so, says Jesus, is ‘following Me’ – for Jesus Himself would take up His cross to carry it to Golgotha. As Jesus said in vs 31: "the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed…."
So, when Pilate handed Jesus over to the soldiers to be killed, we’re not at all surprised that Jesus literally took up His cross to carry it to the place of execution – as John writes in so many words (Jn 19:17); that was, as everybody knew, standard practice. But we are surprised to read in our text that "they compelled" another man "to bear His cross." Why would that be? And what might the implication be for us who are told to deny ourselves and take up our own cross and follow Jesus?
Jesus’ cross was taken from Him, brothers and sisters, so that His people need not carry their crosses to Golgotha. True, we deserve Golgotha, deserve the eternal hell of God’s judgment on our sins. But Christ led the way so that we don’t have to carry our crosses there. That reality gives us hope and happiness in a world of suffering.
I preach to you this morning the gospel of Christ’s cross being taken from Him – for our salvation. I summarize the sermon with this theme:
ON HIS WAY TO GOLGOTHA, CHRIST’S CROSS WAS TAKEN FROM HIM FOR OUR SALVATION.
1. Why Jesus doesn’t carry His own cross.
"They compelled a certain man … to bear His cross," says our text. Why? The common perception is that Jesus was too weak to carry His cross any further. We’re reminded that Jesus was beaten by the soldiers, told too that He was emotionally drained by His trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin and Pilate; it all got too much for Jesus and so, somewhere outside the gates of Jerusalem He stumbled, fell, just couldn’t carry the cross any further…. Since the Roman soldiers wouldn’t stoop so low as to carry the cross for a condemned criminal, they had to find a solution to Jesus’ lack of strength – and so conscripted an innocent passerby to do the dirty work Jesus could no longer do. Here, then, is a touch of mercy for the exhausted Jesus….
There is no support for this common perception.
In the first place, the Scriptures nowhere indicate that Jesus was weakened, exhausted, collapsed. On the contrary, when He died –says vs 39- the supervising centurion was so taken by Jesus’ majesty that he said, "Truly, this Man was the Son of God!" And when Joseph went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body, "Pilate marveled that He was already dead" (vs 44). To Pilate, in other words, Jesus during the trial showed no signs at all of weakness, of exhaustion.
In the second place, we know from sources outside the Bible that every criminal on his way to crucifixion had to carry his own cross. More, we know that before the cross was fastened to the criminal’s shoulders, every criminal was flogged till blood appeared. In other words, the flogging Jesus received (15:15) was not unique.
In the third place, if Jesus had to bear the burden of God’s wrath against sin on the cross of Calvary, does it help to perceive Jesus as weak and exhausted even before He came to Golgotha? Does that not suggest that God’s wrath was not so heavy after all?
No, congregation, there is no evidence that Jesus was in fact so weakened that He couldn’t carry His own cross anymore.
What then is the reason why Jesus’ cross was given to another? We need to notice the formulation of our text. The people in control, the people who determine the action, are the soldiers; "they compelled." In fact, it’s the soldiers who determine the action of the whole passage we read from Mk 15. Throughout the vss 16-28, it is the soldiers who do certain things to Jesus. And yes, there is a common denominator determining their actions – including their actions in our text.
Pilate, says vs 15, delivered Jesus to be crucified, and that’s to say that Jesus was handed over to the soldiers who had to carry out Pilate’s sentence. But see: the soldiers did not bring Jesus straight away to the place of crucifixion. They could have, but they didn’t. instead, says vs 16, "the soldiers led Him away into the hall called Praetorium." In Pilate’s residence, the Praetorium, a garrison of soldiers was quartered, and that’s where the soldiers took Jesus first – to their own barracks. Then "the whole garrison" came together, a group of anywhere between 200 and 500 soldiers. You can imagine what happens: rough and tough soldiers, men of muscle and crude to the core, had opportunity to do what they would with this condemned Jew without fear of punishment; the opportunity was too good to pass by and so the whole garrison got to join in the fun.
These soldiers are not strangers in Jerusalem. True, they’re not Jews; they’re Gentiles of whatever race. But they know about this Jesus of Nazareth, they’ve had their ear to the ground, they’ve heard of His miracles and His teaching. And there were soldiers who heard in Jesus’ trial that He said He was the King of the Jews (15:2; cf vs 9,12). So they play with that theme. Vs 17: they clothe Him in purple, the color of a king. They give Him a crown, as a king ought to have. They saluted Him as befits a king; "Hail," they called out, "Welcome to the king of the Jews!" You can hear the ribald laughter of the crowd as one soldier slaps the thorny crown on Jesus’ head, hear more raucous hilarity as they line up to salute this so-called king…. And when one hit Him on the head with a reed and spit on Him, the place will have come down with course amusement; what a fool this Jesus of Nazareth looked in the midst of these vulgar soldiers…. King of the Jews: what a joke!
After they’ve had their fun with Jesus, the soldiers –according to custom- fastened the cross to Jesus’ shoulders. That way the criminal could do the dirty work in bringing the instrument needed for execution to the place of execution, and on top of that he wouldn’t be able to run away with that weight on his shoulders. It was also custom that the crime of the condemned man was written on a tablet and hung around the criminal’s neck. That same tablet was later fixed to the cross. There goes Jesus: a tablet around His neck declaring that He’s the King of the Jews (cf vs 26), and on His shoulders the cross….
But that in itself is too good an opportunity for the soldiers to pass by! They’ve been mocking Him in the Praetorium; on the road they continue to mock Him. "King of the Jews," says the tablet around His neck. Good, let’s find Him a worthy servant to work for Him! A King shouldn’t be so humiliated as to carry His own cross! Yonder comes a passerby; let’s compel him to do servant duties for his King! So the soldiers grab this passerby, remove the cross from Jesus’ shoulders, and fasten it to Simon’s instead…. What laughter as Jesus the King is made to walk empty-handed with a faithful servant following –just one, mind!- carrying the King’s possessions – a cross-for-execution!
Exactly that understanding gives the words of our text their depth and their pain. For behind these soldiers lie other forces. These soldiers, I said before, were no strangers in Jerusalem. They’d heard of Jesus, of His miracles and of His preaching. But from the way they ridicule Him, it’s clear that they reject all that Jesus stands for, all that Jesus claims His is. "King of the Jews"? O No, the soldiers know better than that! Son of God? Again, No, the soldiers don’t believe that for a moment – else they wouldn’t treat Him as they do. My point: through their actions these soldiers demonstrate their unbelief. John the Baptist had preached the need for repentance some years earlier, and then soldiers came to him asking what they had to do (Luke 3:14); they responded positively. Now there’s one greater than John, but the soldiers don’t ask what they have to do in the changed circumstances; they just reject Jesus, mock, tease….
Here, beloved, is Satan’s work, Satan’s hatred for the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus refused to bow the knee before Satan in the beginning of His ministry, and now Satan shows Jesus the terrible consequence of His refusal; the ridicule of hell drives the soldiers to mock Jesus Christ as He’s never been mocked before.
What pressure on our Lord, then, what pressure to call upon His Father to send down a legion of angels to destroy this mocking garrison, to show the devil and his cronies that He was in fact the King, that hell is never right to ridicule the King of kings!
But that’s something Jesus couldn’t do, for the Father was rejecting Him too…. That’s clear from our second point:
2. Who carries Jesus’ cross for Him.
"A certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus," writes Mark. The name ‘Simon’ is a very Jewish name, and so betrays that the man was a Jew by race. He was, in other words, a covenant child, to whom was the promise of redemption, who had the law and the prophets, and the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the sacrifices of the temple and the sacraments. He came from Cyrene, a section of Northern Africa where a large colony of Jews had settled, but was now in Jerusalem. It could be that he had made a pilgrimage in order to be in the city for the Passover; it could also be that he (as happened with more people) had retired in Jerusalem because of the popular desire to be buried in the city of the fathers.
However that may have been, Simon of Cyrene was now in Jerusalem. So he most certainly knew about Jesus of Nazareth. That Jesus a week ago had entered the city astride the foal of a donkey and crowds cried out their Hosannas wasn’t done on the quiet but became the talk of town (Mk 11:1ff). That Jesus the next day drove the merchants from the temple and permitted no trade for a day was not done quietly either; the whole city talked about it (Mk 11:15ff). That Jesus spoke His parables condemning the leadership was no secret either; Mark relates that the leadership "sought to lay hands on Him, but feared the multitude" (12:12). Jesus of Nazareth was the talk of the city, and therefore known to Simon of Cyrene also.
But now we read of this Simon in our text that "he was coming out of the country and was passing by." The picture this formulation presents is in direct contrast to the atmosphere in the city. In the city was much attention for this Jesus; He was on everybody’s lips and minds. But this passerby shows only disinterest; he’d been out in the country – be it for a walk, be it to tend his garden. This man was not hot for Jesus, nor was he cold for Jesus; he just went his own way, carried on with his own thing. Inside the city the crowds called out for Jesus’ crucifixion, and that’s to say that the people had made a choice, had thought about Jesus and come to a conclusion – be it the wrong conclusion. But Simon is presented as uninterested, as apathetic toward this Jesus – lukewarm….
What, brothers and sisters, is worse: being apathetic, uninterested, or rejecting the Savior? Make no mistake: rejecting the Savior is dead wrong, sin before God, and there lies on that decision God’s penalty. But at least those who have rejected the Savior have thought about Jesus of Nazareth, have busied their minds with the important matters of life and death! The uninterested haven’t even done that! And that disinterest will most certainly attract the harsh judgment of God also! In the kingdom of God there is not room for apathy!
But that’s what this Simon is. While the city can speak of only one thing, Simon has his garden in mind, or his walk, or whatever he was doing in the country on this Passover Day; that’s more important than this Jesus everybody’s talking about. And this, this is the one the soldiers conscript to carry Jesus’ cross! One disinterested in Jesus of Nazareth, one who hasn’t got time or initiative to make a decision, a fence sitter, one neither hot nor cold but offensively lukewarm: he gets to play the part of the loyal servant of King Jesus….
Do the soldiers know that Simon can’t be bothered with Jesus? Probably not. But God knows! And it is the Lord God –sovereign Creator, sovereign Upholder of all the earth- who causes Simon to pass by just when the soldiers think to play their next dirty trick on their victim. That is to say: it is the Lord God Himself –Jesus’ own Father!- who gives His Son this particular dud of a servant. Here is another aspect of the Father rejecting His Son, here the Savior is left more and more alone.
That is why Jesus cannot now call on His Father to send forth a legion of angels to destroy this garrison of ribald soldiers. His Father is withdrawing His support, is Himself turning against His Son, and so Jesus doesn’t have the option to call upon His Father. And yes, beloved, that is suffering for the Son of God! He has been with the Father in heavenly glory from all eternity. On earth He could utter His command and the Father would do as the Son asked; one word from the Son and the Father made the barren fig tree wither, one word from the Son and the Father made the dead come alive, one word from the Son and the Father sent demons out of the possessed. But Jesus could not now exercise His authority, could not now call upon the Father to silence the raucous laughter of the tormenting soldiers, stop their hellish ridicule. Jesus Christ had to deny Himself, had to suffer the rejection of the Father, the wrath of the Father – because our sins were transferred to His shoulders. Here was suffering for the Lord, and it would only get worse, worse, till Jesus had to cry out His hellish agony with that cry of despair at the end of the three hours of darkness: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"
I come to our last point:
3. How Jesus’ rejection helps us.
Back in Mark 8 Jesus had told the people that anyone who wished to come after Jesus should deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus. That is: those who would be Christians should be willing to be treated as condemned criminals being led out to crucifixion.
It’s an image we don’t like at all. Should we deny ourselves so much that we be willing to be treated as condemned criminals – and then willingly take that shameful cross on our shoulders?? Surely, surely not!
But this is the gospel, dear brothers and sisters. The Christ whom the soldiers led along the Via Dolorosa to the Place of the Skull was without sin, was without fault; even Pilate could find no wrong in Him. Yet He traveled that road of shame to Golgotha for us, for our benefit. It was our sins that drove Him along that evil road; our sins drove Him to Golgotha. So willingly He took the cross on His shoulders – so totally did He deny Himself for us!
And as He walked that shameful road –on our account!- He was increasingly rejected, rejected because our sins were piled on Him. The rejection He experienced –also when the Father granted Him but one servant, and a dud at that- was a rejection we deserved – and He received in our place. Yet, despite the injustice done to Jesus –for it should have been done to us!- He persevered, carried on to the utter shame of Calvary, so that He might there undergo the full load of God’s just wrath against our sins. And the blessed result is this: there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1)! Yes, we deserve crucifixion on account of our sins, and we need to be ready to admit that and even ready to undergo that crucifixion – hence the instruction to take up your cross. But actually carry our cross to Golgotha and actually die for our sins we need not, for Jesus did that for us.
That is the glorious gospel of redemption, beloved! On account of our sins we deserve such judgment from God that we should condemned to the anguish of crucifixion. Do you believe that?? Then you will deny yourself and be willing to take up your cross; your awareness of your sins and misery and of the righteous judgment of God, will compel you to do so.
But bring it to action, literally carrying your cross to Golgotha and God’s righteous judgment you don’t have to, for Christ suffered the rejection, the heavenly penalty, we deserved! So Paul can write to the Galatians: "I have been crucified with Christ" (2:20; cf Rom 6:6). Did you hear that, brothers and sisters? "Take up your cross," says Jesus, "and follow Me," follow Me to Golgotha, to the terrible events of Good Friday. Paul says that he did so, and was crucified with Christ. So Paul can add: it’s no longer I –my sinful self- who lives in me, but it is Christ who lives in me. And that is why Paul is acceptable to God again, righteous and forgiven of his sins – and therefore there is no wrath from God on Him anymore!
There’s the gospel for us also. For Paul was not the only one crucified with Christ. His point is that all God’s people have been crucified with Christ. Christ’s self-denial, a self-denial that culminated in His Father rejecting Him –remember the dud of a servant God gave His Son- has produced our salvation. Because of Christ’s self-emptying, sinners are reconciled to the Father, are treated again as His children and heirs. And that, that gives comfort and hope and perspective in a world burdened under war and viruses, hope and comfort in lives bent under the weight of grief and loneliness.
Yes, things happen in our lives that to us are burdens; we even call them crosses we need to bear. It be so. The fact of the matter is that those who were willing to be condemned for their sins, and so to take up their cross, shall never taste the weight of God’s wrath against their sins. Life has its burdens, but for those crucified with Christ there is no curse from God in these burdens - for Christ has taken God’s curse upon Himself in our place. Instead, with the burden God gives comes also the strength to carry it; Christ’s calls the Christian’s yoke easy and the burden light.
That’s because on Good Friday Jesus was rejected, that we might nevermore be rejected. Amen.