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Nazareth Revisited



"And when they were come to the place which is called Calvary, there they crucified him." Such is the ungarnished record of the awful climax of the Lord's sufferings. The name of the spot has gone round the world in all languages, through all the ages with the cross of his shame and the name of his glory. Its particular locality is doubtful. It matters little. It is known to God, and is better not known to man in the state of things now upon the earth. It will doubtless be marked and honoured in the day of the Lord's glory when he reigns, with the nail marks in his hands where they were inflicted. It is natural for men to be curious as to the exact site of Calvary. An attempt has recently been made to identify it in connection with its other name -- Golgotha, "the place of a skull." There is a prominence or spur outside the walls of Jerusalem on the eastern side resembling the shape of a skull, and it is supposed this was "the place" where the procession that led Jesus out to crucifixion came to a halt. Wherever it was, arrived at Calvary, the soldiers proceeded to the work which an agonised imagination refuses to realise. There was, first of all, a mitigating touch of humanity. They offered their noble victim a mixture to drink, which it is said would have had the effect of dulling sensibility to pain. Was this the result of softened feelings, inspired by the spectacle of his broken-heartedness? (for it is written in the psalms, "Grief hath broken his heart" -- we may know that such would be his aspect). Whatever feeling prompted their kindness, it was in vain. Jesus refused the drink. He would not assuage, by a mechanical stupefaction, the sufferings which the Father had called upon him to go through by the power of faith. "And they crucified him:" brief words. What unutterable anguish is crowded into them! The soldiers would undress him: for it was the custom to crucify prisoners naked. Oh, what heartrending indignity. Shall we be afraid of being put to shame for his sake? It was for us he thus suffered: "the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God." Then they would lay the cross on the ground; and taking hold of Christ, they would lay him down on his back upon it, and seizing hammer and strong nails, they would drive the nails through hands and feet as if he were a piece of senseless wood. Oh, the agonised face! Oh, the sweat-beaded brow! Oh, the cruel pangs and heavy groans of that holy bosom! O God, why this heart-crushing tragedy -- Thy dear Son, Thy beloved Son, given thus into the hands of sinners, torn and mangled as by beasts of prey, subjected to every indignity in the power of man to inflict? We know the answer: "By one man sin entered into the world." He himself has said "The cup which my Father hath given me to drink, shall I not drink?" But we are weak. We can ill bear this sight. "Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world." Father, thou art great, and sin is terrible. "It pleased the Lord to put him to grief." Thou wilt yet divide him a portion with the strong in the bright and endless day for which thou art thus preparing. When we think of this, we draw a sigh of relief. We are panting to join in the praises that will then crown his head: "Worthy the Lamb that was slain, to receive power and riches and wisdom and honour and glory and blessing; for thou hast redeemed us unto God by thy blood, from every kindred and tongue and people and nation; and thou hast made us as unto our God kings and priests, and we shall reign with thee upon the earth."

The broad-headed nails driven entirely home, the soldiers would then lift the 'cross with its bleeding burden, and plant it in the hole dug in the earth to receive it. Firmly fixing it there, they do the same for the two thieves, and put the climax on the shame of his cross by placing them one on each side of him. Jesus is still able to speak. What are those words that come from his parched lips? "Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do!" Compassionate in the midst of his sufferings, he prays for his murderers. O Lord of heaven and earth, help us to conform to the example he hath left us. Our hearts break for love and pity. Help us to do his commandments.

The soldiers are heedless of the prayer, but the centurion, more intelligent than the rest, takes notice. Then, according to the custom, the soldiers performing the execution divide the clothes of the crucified among themselves. The soldiers are four in number (a quarternion) they divide the clothes equally: but the vesture is more valuable than the rest. It is the work of love, and is seamless, a woven work throughout. For this, they cast lots.

It would be the business of the captain to affix over the cross the usual writing specifying the offence of the prisoners. In the case of Christ, Pilate himself had prepared the writing. It was a difficult case to define. Pilate might have written "Treason." He chose not to do this. He wrote a title which became a declaration of the truth for all time. In this, he would be guided first by his own feelings (for he was persuaded Christ was no promoter of sedition), and the hand of God would guide him in a matter in which a divine work was concerned. He wrote, "This is Jesus of Nazareth, The King of The Jews." He wrote it in three languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) to suit the Jews themselves; the Greek Jews who were visitors at the passover feast;and the soldiers and officials of Rome, who spoke Latin. When the chief priests saw the writing, they disliked it exceedingly, It was a discomforting declaration, which many believed, and of which many of them suspected the truth: for many of them (as John informs us) believed, but confessed him not, for fear of being excommunicated. They quailed under such a declaration staring at them from the head of the cross. They therefore went to Pilate, and asked him to change it. They said, "Write not, The King of the Jews, but that he said, I am King of the Jews." But Pilate was not to be moved. "What I have written, I have written." And thus by an extraordinary and beautiful Providence of God, the truth was proclaimed in the very act by which man intended to brand it as a lie.

Having completed their work, the soldiers sit down to watch their victims. The crowd that had accompanied them surge all around, gloating their eyes with triumphant satisfaction on the bleeding and suffering form of him who "went about among them doing good." The scribes and Pharisees and rulers of the people made themselves prominent in this ignominious pageant. Ill at ease, they try to argue themselves into the conviction that all is well: "He saved others; himself he cannot save." "If he be king of Israel, let him descend now from the cross that we may see and believe." Ah, "scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites," did he save others? Are ye not afraid to crucify a man who saved others? Do bad men "save others?" As to coming down from the cross, suppose that like Joseph, cast to death by his brethren; like Moses, rejected at first by your predecessors in Egypt, the purpose of your God requires that the king of Israel thus should suffer: that "as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, the son of man should thus be lifted up." How can he in that case "come down from the cross?" How then should the Scripture be fulfilled? -- Are not your questions unreasonable? But they know not what they do. The people, at all times easily led, join with them in their brutal taunts -- cruel to hurl at any man, even the worst, in the hour of torture -- how much more at one "without spot and blameless," and whose name has since in all the world been the synonym of all that is beneficent and righteous, and holy and true. Wagging head and railing tongue sent home the shafts of ridicule. "O thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself and come down from the cross." "Let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God." "He trusted in God: let him deliver him now if he will have him." The scribes and Pharisees took the lead in the mocking jibes that rung around the cross. Even the soldiers, encouraged by their example, took part. "If thou be the King of the Jews save thyself." To crown the infamy, the very thieves who were crucified with him "cast the same in his teeth;" they, who, as fellow-sufferers, might have been expected to at least sympathise with him in silence. "If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us." There was a little mitigation in this presently. One of the thieves appears to have come to a reasonable mind, and to have rebuked the railing of his companion. Declaring that Jesus had done nothing to deserve such a fate, he not only rebuked his fellow-criminal, but implored Jesus to remember the speaker in the day of his kingdom. It is a matter of momentary marvel that a man of this stamp should have preferred such a request. The marvel ceases when we recollect that for 3 1/2 years, Jesus had engaged public attention, and that "the common people heard him gladly" everywhere; to which class, the man now on the cross by the side of Jesus probably belonged. He evidently knew enough of Jesus to recognise him in his true character, and to give way to the effect of his knowledge when his first bravado had subsided under the torture of his position. Jesus did not despise the prayer. "I say unto thee, To-day (this day -- the day introduced in the question) shalt thou be with me in Paradise." The common view of this answer is excluded by the fact that Jesus did not go to Paradise during the twenty-four hours in which the words were uttered: that in fact he died, and had not ascended to the Father three days afterwards (Jno. xx. 17); and further by the fact that Paradise is not above the clouds, nor as yet established on the earth, but is to be established there, in the Holy Land,in the day of hisglory. -- (See Ezek. xxxvi. 33-35; Is. lx. 13-15; Jer. xxxi. 23-26).

For six dreadful hours, Jesus hung in helpless agony -- and part of that time, he was exposed to the scorching rays of a Syrian sun. At first, the weeping women who followed him to execution, "stood afar off." How could they bear the agony and the shame? But before the scene closed, some of them found their way near him, including his mother Mary, her sister the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene. They stood near the cross along with John, the beloved disciple who had found them in the crowd. Jesus perceived them, and in brief words, directed John to take care of his mother -- from which it is probable that the tradition is correct that by this time, Joseph, "the husband of Mary" was dead. John acted on the dying direction, and "from that hour took her to his own home."

At the end of three hours, namely towards 12 o'clock mid-day, according to modern reckoning, the day began to grow dark. The people began to look about expecting a thunderstorm, but there were no clouds. Shortly the obscuration deepened, till it was quite dark "over all the land." Many would probably disperse to their homes in presence of the darkness, which was unusual and terrifying. It is said that calculations show that an eclipse of the sun occurred about this time. Possibly so, but this does not detract from the significance of a pre-arranged frown of nature at the wickedness of man in putting to death the son of God. If it was done by an eclipse, that was God's way of bringing it about -- by timing the events with the eclipse; but it is by no means certain that this was the method.*{* C. C. W. calls attention to the fact that darkness caused by an eclipse would not have lasted more than two hours at the longest.} There were other circumstances in the situation of a directly supernatural character, and it is likely that all were such. For three hours darkness lasted, -- namely, from 12 to 3 o'clock (Western time). The prevalence of darkness must have added greatly to the horror of Christ's last moments. He was a prey to raging thirst. His last words were a piercing wail, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" Some have a difficulty in understanding such words from the mouth of Christ. There need be none. The exhaustion of nature accounts for the momentary suspension of understanding. Consider the sleepless and terrible night he had come through; the buffetings; the scourging; and the six hours fierce agony of the cross; can we wonder at strength gone, understanding clouded, heart broken? The moment of release was at hand. Some of the bystanders, misunderstanding the Hebrew in which Jesus spoke, imagined he was calling for Elias, and one proposed to strengthen him in prospect of a possible rescue by that prophet, by moistening his parched and dry lips with vinegar. Ah! they little understood. There was one long loud wail from the convulsed form on "the accursed tree" and then a few scarcely audible words: "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit." Again he said, "It is finished." The head then fell on the breast; the frame hung motionless All was over. Christ was dead.

The tempest of grief and anger that sweeps over the soul in the contemplation of these things finds its counterpart in the manifestation that now struck terror into the spectators. An earthquake sent its appalling tremors far and wide; with sharp, cracking sound, the rocky hills in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem were rent asunder in all directions; the graves were exposed; the veil of the temple that fenced off the holiest from human intrusion, was sharply torn open from top to bottom. Dark, weird, and terrific, every aspect of nature combined to express the anger of God at a tragedy which, while His own pre-appointment for high and holy ends, was none the less the infamous triumph of human wickedness over the holy, the good, and divine. Not many years afterwards, there was a fearful retribution on the same spot, when by the order of Titus, to deter the inhabitants of the beleagured city from escaping into his camp, Jerusalem was surrounded with a long line of crosses on each of which an escaped Jew was transfixed in writhing agony. If we could know, we should probably discover that the victims on that occasion, though taken at haphazard by the Romans, were probably selected by the hand of Providence with reference to the guilt of Calvary.

The officer in command of the squad of soldiers that had been entrusted with the execution of Jesus, was deeply impressed with all he saw, taken in connection with the character and demeanour of the prisoner. He was convinced that Jesus was no ordinary man. "Certainly," said he, "this was a righteous man: Truly this was the Son of God." All standing round him were similarly impressed. All "feared greatly," and were moved deeply. Solemnly they exchanged remarks with the emphatic gesture and breast-smitings of Orientals. Quickly they dispersed, and the light began to return. Then came the question among the officials about the disposal of the bodies. The thieves were still in full life. Under ordinary circumstances they would have been left to languish to death where they were; but next day was the high sabbath of the passover, the feast, and the Jews were very punctilious about proper ceremonial observance, which the exposure of criminals in execution would have contravened. They therefore "besought Pilate" that "they might be taken away," but that in order to secure death, their legs might be broken. Pilate consented, and soldiers were sent to do as had been requested. When they came to Jesus, finding that he was already dead, they refrained; but one of the soldiers, to make sure that it was death and no trance, plunged his spear in his side. "Forthwith came there out blood and water." Thus was the certainty of death guaranteed to all who should come after, and thus also was it shewn that mental suffering had more to do with causing death than physical agony: for, according to surgical testimony, the efflux of "blood and water" could only occur where the heart had been ruptured. Thus, finally, was the precious blood of Christ shed for us as the antitypical lamb without spot. Blood would ooze from the hands and feet, and from the pain punctures of the thorny crown; but copious and complete would be the discharge caused by the Roman spear; and thus would the one great offering for sin be consummated. "Without the shedding of blood is no remission:" such is the law of God which no man can change. "The life is in the blood" (Lev. xvii. II); and it is the life that sin brings into condemnation -- not as an entity but as the possession of the flesh. It was, therefore, fitting that "the blood of the new covenant" should be poured out in a manner, leaving no sense of incompleteness. This was secured by the providential regulation of the natural circumstances connected with the Lord's crucifixion.

Another point had now to be secured. The body of the Lord was in danger of being cast as a dishonoured carcase among the rubbish and defilement of the local town waste. This was the customary way of disposing of the corpses of crucified criminals; and such he was in the eye of human law at this moment. This needless dishonour of God's Holy One was to be prevented, and also the doubt as to his resurrection, which would in some measure have arisen if his body had been thrown out into an unidentifiable spot. "An honourable man and a councillor" was providentially brought to the rescue -- a member of the Sannhedrim who "had not consented to the counsel and deed of them" -- Joseph, of Arimathea, -- "a good man and a just," who also himself waited for the Kingdom of God, and who had in fact been secretly a disciple of Jesus. He now threw aside his secrecy, and went openly and boldly to Pilate, and begged that he might be allowed to take possession of the body of Jesus. This was an act of great courage. It was to identify himself with an executed criminal, and incur the reproach of his name at a time when as yet there was nothing to lighten the stigma like the circumstances that developed themselves in connection with his resurrection. When a man is necessary, God provides him. An ordinary man would not have had influence enough with Pilate to get such a request granted. Joseph of Arimathea was no ordinary man. He was not only a man of exceptional character, but as a member of the council, he would carry all the weight of a modern member of Parliament. Pilate was surprised to be applied to for the body. He had just given orders to have the legs of the prisoners broken, that death might be ensured in a day or two; and he had not heard that when the soldiers came to Jesus, they found him dead already. He sent for the centurion who had had charge of the execution, and asked if Jesus were really dead, and if he had been for some time dead. The centurion answered affirmatively on, both points: and Pilate then gave orders that the body should be delivered to Joseph. Joseph went away at once to Golgotha, to receive the body. There was need for haste, as the evening was come, and the bodies had to be removed in compliance with the urgent scrupulosities of the Jews. Joseph had a newly-made grave of his own close to the city, and not far from the cross; and he had just purchased a quantity of new linen. His plan was to wrap the body in the linen and put it in his grave till a permanent arrangement could be made. After leaving Pilate, he was joined by Nicodemus, a chief man among the Jews (the same who, at the beginning of the public ministry of Christ, came to him by night, confessing, "We know that thou art a teacher come from God, for no man can do these miracles that thou doest except God be with him"). Nicodemus brought with him about a hundred-weight of the spices in which it was customary for the Jews to enswathe their beloved dead before committing them to the tomb. Nicodemus must have made this preparation during the day, in the full knowledge of Christ's condemnation, and in anticipation of his death. Possibly he and Joseph agreed together that they should ask Pilate for custody of the body when death should be certified. Probably they were among the crowds that came out to witness the crucifixion and saw the end. At all events, here they were together at the cross, with the full authority of the governor to take possession of the body, and armed with the needful appliances for affectionate interment.

They took the body down and tenderly wrapped it in the linen with the spices liberally laid on; and then conveyed it to the garden which contained Joseph's new sepulchre. Hither they were accompanied by the women who had followed the Lord out of Galilee. With affectionate faithfulness these had lingered to the last, and saw the body taken down, and now witnessed its deposit in the tomb, to the door of which a great stone was rolled;after which, they departed to their temporary home in Jerusalem, to rest, according to the commandment, on the high passover Sabbath which had now commenced, and at the same time to prepare spices and ointments for a more affectionate attention to the body when another visit should provide the occasion.

Next day, there were other visitors to the tomb where the Lord of Glory lay in death. Soldiers!very unusual visitors at such a place. How extraordinary a man must be to have soldiers posted at his grave -- on whatever plea the soldiers are placed there. The chief priests and Pharisees were uneasy about the occupant of that grave. They had prevailed against him. They had killed him. And yet they were not content. They must have soldiers set to watch his dead body. They asked this fayour of Pilate. Why? Here is their own account: "Sir, we remember that that deceiver said while he was yet alive, After three days, I will rise again. Command, therefore, that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead, so the last error shall be worse than the first" (Matt. xxvii. 63). Pilate's answer was: "Ye have a watch: go your way: make it as sure as ye can." "So they went and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch." Behold, then, a squad of Roman soldiers march into the garden, and set themselves down before a quiet stone chamber, containing a dead man! Was ever such a thing seen before? How suggestive is the incident every way when thought over. How fruitful of evidence of the truth. It proves (out of the mouth of Christ's enemies) that Christ had predicted his own death; for how otherwise could the idea of rising again in three days have arisen? And if he predicted his own death, the presence of his dead body in that cold soldier-guarded chamber is proof of his having been a true prophet in that particular. And if a true prophet in that particular, why notinthe other particular also, that "in three days he would rise again?" It proves also that Christ was a doer of mighty works "before God and all the people;" for if he were not, how came the Pharisees to take such trouble to prevent the idea of his resurrection from arising. The Pharisees themselves are witnesses to the mighty works -- the curing of multitudes by his word. The very explanation they gave of them is evidence of their occurrence. "He casteth out demons by the prince of demons." If he performed these mighty works, what explanation is there of them but the one he gave himself: "The works that I do bear witness of me that the Father hath sent me." It proves also how utterly childish and absurd -- how unreasonable and impossible were the views of the case entertained by the destroyers of Jesus. Here was a body of soldiers at his grave side by their request -- to prevent what? His resurrection? Oh, no; they could not admit that. Jesus was "that deceiver." Though he said he would rise in three days, of course he would do no such thing. What then were the soldiers for? To prevent the disciples stealing the body, and saying Jesus had risen. To prevent the disciples stealing and lying? Why should they steal and he in the case? When men steal and lie, it is with an object -- invariably. What object could there be in this case? The possession of Christ's dead body would be the surest evidence to the disciples that he was not what they believed him to be. With such fatal proof that he was dead, and not alive, why should they wish to say he had risen? What had they to gain by it -- for themselves or others? We could understand their getting up a story that was to work to advantage in some way; but where was the advantage in preaching a he in the face of opposition, imprisonment and death? If Christ rose, we can understand it. If he did not, the procedure of the apostles is inexplicable on any known principle of human action, and their success still more so.

How overpowering do these considerations become when we come to study the actual inducements afterwards offered by the disciples to the people in connection with faith in his resurrection: "Through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins! Repent and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord, and God shall send Jesus Christ whom the heavens must receiveuntil -- &c." That men should steal a dead body and proclaim a he that they might preach such doctrines and present such considerations, is a moral impossibility. Yet such was the puerile suggestion on which the chief priests asked Pilate to safe-guard the grave of Jesus of Nazareth. It bears its own condemnation on its face. However, it was a useful piece of folly. It turned the very murderers of Christ into witnesses of his resurrection. By placing a guard at the tomb, they were placed under the obligation of admitting before the whole world that "after three days;" the tomb was empty; and the very story they put into circulation to explain the emptiness -- (current among the Jews to this very day) -- became, by its lameness and self-evident absurdity, one of the principal evidences of that very resurrection which they invented it to deny.

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