READ : John 19:17-24
“Beneath the cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand,” says an old hymn. But what actually occurred beneath the cross of Jesus might surprise you.
I know I’ve sung these words hundreds of times; maybe you have too:
Beneath the cross of Jesus
I fain would take my stand –
The shadow of a mighty Rock
Within a weary land.
The cross is of the greatest importance not only to the Christian faith but to the Christian imagination as well. Christians sing about it, talk about it, depict it in various forms, even wear it as jewelry. In a way that’s very odd. If someone from Jesus’ time could see how much we use this symbol, he would doubtless be surprised, perhaps even shocked. Originally, a cross was a hideous instrument of torture and death. It would be as if people today went around wearing a little gallows on a chain around their neck, or decorated their church buildings with replicas of the electric chair.
The real cross was repulsive. It was an awful thing. I doubt whether any of us, if we had the chance, would actually have wanted to stand “beneath the cross of Jesus.” A crucifixion must have been one of the most terrible of human spectacles. Yet, awful as it was, Jesus’ crucifixion really is the central event in world history. It is at the heart of Christian faith and life. What happened when Jesus died on the cross is the foundation of the only hope for the future anyone can have. If Jesus hadn’t died the way that he did, no one could be saved. Because he did die, you and I can have eternal life. So the Christian impulse to make so much of the cross is right after all.
What actually happened there? What was it really like beneath the cross of Jesus that day when he was crucified? The four gospels follow Jesus closely through the hours of his final day and night: from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane, from his betrayal and arrest to his trial, his condemnation, his torture and humiliation, and his last journey through the streets of Jerusalem. Now he has come to Golgotha, where the final scene is played out. Here is how the apostle John described it:
He had to carry his own cross. He went out to place called The Skull. In the Aramaic language it was called Golgotha. There they nailed Jesus to the cross. Two other men were crucified with him. One was on each side of him. Jesus was in the middle.
Pilate had a notice prepared. It was fastened to the cross. It read JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read the sign. The place where Jesus was crucified was near the city. The sign was written in the Aramaic, Latin and Greek languages.
The chief priests of the Jews argued with Pilate. They said, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews.’ Write that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”
Pilate answered, “I have written what I have written.”
When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes. They divided them into four parts. Each soldier got one part. Jesus’ long, inner robe was left. It did not have any seams. It was made out of one piece of cloth from top to bottom.
“Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s cast lots to see who will get it.”
This happened so that Scripture would come true. It says,
“They divided up my clothes among them.
They cast lots for what I was wearing.”
So that is what the soldiers did.
John 19:17-24, NIrV
THEY CRUCIFIED HIM
Let’s concentrate on just one segment of this story – the actions of the soldiers. The execution detail was a dirty job, but soldiers in every time and place have been used to getting the dirty jobs, and they’ve managed to learn how to do them efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. The first thing the soldiers did is stated with stark simplicity: when they got to Golgotha, they crucified Jesus; that is, they nailed him to a cross and left him there to die.
All four Gospels seem reluctant to dwell on the physical details of Jesus’ crucifixion. They describe the events leading up to it, but the act itself is passed over rather quickly. We are left to fill in those details with our own imagination . . . the spikes through the wrists . . . the cross-beam hoisted up and tied to the upright . . . a third spike pinning the feet . . . then the long, slow, agonizing death in public view.
But there is another small detail you might not have imagined. Before they nailed Jesus to the cross, these soldiers first stripped him of all his clothes. Ancient historians report that the victims of crucifixion were always crucified naked. And the Gospels tell how the soldiers later divided Jesus’ clothes among themselves. The Romans didn’t merely want to kill those whom they crucified; they wanted to inflict the maximum shame upon them.
For me it makes it more terrible to realize that Jesus was stripped naked on the cross. Christian artists have always depicted him as tastefully covered, and who can blame them? We shrink from even trying to draw a mental picture of how it actually was. So every artist very modestly paints in a cloth draped around the figure of Jesus on his cross. But that’s not how he was crucified.
His arms were stretched out to the breaking point. He was hoisted up in agony and suspended naked from the cross. It was absolutely shameful. The Son of God, naked to the public gaze! It’s hard for me to think of the Lord Jesus hanging there on the cross that way. Do you know how shame began? Adam and Eve were created good, righteous and innocent. They weren’t ashamed in the Garden of Eden. They were completely un-self-conscious as they lived in communion with God and with each other. It was only when they turned away from God that this perfection was broken. Sin ruptured the intimate relationship that existed between humans and their Creator, and between Adam and Eve themselves. The choice to follow their own selfish way rather than to obey God was like a spiritual nuclear explosion, with immense moral and psychological fallout. After Adam and Eve sinned, the Bible says they realized they were naked, and they felt shame for the first time.
Psychologists link shame to the human unconscious, to some deep experience or sense of violating a primitive taboo, and they’re not wrong. But when the Bible speaks of shame, it always points straight back to sin. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German pastor and theologian, said that Adam and Eve’s original covering was their perfect union with God and each other. And when sin spoiled those relationships, it left them alone, naked and filled with shame:
Shame is man’s ineradicable recollection of his estrangement from the origin. It’s the thing that he can’t erase, his memory that he is now cut off from God, the source of all life. And it is his grief for this estrangement and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin. . . . Man is ashamed of the loss of his unity with God and with other men.
It is a thing of amazement to me that on the cross, the God who once clothed Adam in his shame now allowed himself to be unclothed. Jesus took upon himself not only our human sin, but our human shame. And when he did that, he absorbed it into himself, paying the price of sin’s penalty so that he could restore the relationship between himself and us. Because Christ was willing to be shamed for you on the cross, you no longer have to be ashamed by your moral failure. You can be forgiven instead! You can have your relationship restored, so that you experience closeness with him again! All this, because of Jesus’ shame-filled death.
THEY THREW FOR HIS CLOTHES
But for this change to happen you must accept his death for yourself. You have to recognize its infinite value for you personally. You must turn away from any attempts to cover up your own sin, or any thoughts that you’re good enough as you are to be accepted by a holy God.
The gospel record tells us one more particular thing the soldiers did beneath Jesus’ cross. It too was a small detail. Once the main job was done and all that was left was the waiting, the soldiers on the execution squad could turn their attention to the spoils. In the case of Jesus it wasn’t much, only his clothes. Poor as he was, Jesus had almost nothing to offer, but custom dictated that the property of the condemned belonged to his executioners, so they parceled it out into four shares, one for each. There were some outer garments, a belt, a pair of sandals, and then they came to the last piece.
John describes it as a seamless undergarment, woven in one piece from top to bottom. It was a sort of shirt worn next to the skin, usually made of linen or some other fine material. And when the soldiers saw that it was a well-made piece of goods, not wanting to spoil it, they said, “Let’s toss for it!” So that’s what they did, probably using bones or stones very much like modern dice.
In one sense, it was such a thoughtless thing to do. The Son of God is dying for the sins of the world while coarse hands paw over his few possessions. The greatest and most solemn act in the history of the cosmos is taking place right above their heads and these men ignore it to play out their game of greed. To them, it’s just another day at work.
But are we so different? How like us they are! There’s no dignity or reverence at the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion – none, that is, except on the cross itself. Every possible human reaction to Jesus Christ is on display already there at Golgotha. The whole range of human response is shown us. Some observers laugh at him or openly mock him, pouring scorn and contempt on him. Others kneel in loving allegiance beneath Jesus’ cross. But the vast majority, like these soldiers, just go on about their business. They simply ignore him, consumed as they are with the everyday pursuits of buying and selling, getting and keeping, coming and going. So many people are just not interested in the man who died on the cross. Some mock Jesus, some love and worship him, most don’t think about him at all. Like the soldiers, they are so absorbed in life’s business and amusements, they simply don’t pay any attention to what’s happening on the cross.
Think about that seamless shirt of Jesus. Such a significant thing – to take the clothing of Christ. I wonder who got it. Which of the four soldiers won the toss? What did he do with the shirt? Did he sell it for a few coins? Did he trade it for a bottle to drink, or use it to hire a woman for the night? Or did he take it home, keep it, wear it himself? What if he put on Jesus’ garment? What if he covered himself with it? In spiritual terms, that is exactly what we do when we pray to put our trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. Christ’s shame and nakedness, his death, his blood, become our covering. His perfect life clothes us like a bright new garment. His sacrifice is our salvation, our hope, our life.
I’d like to ask you to pray right now. There’s another old Christian hymn that speaks of Christ’s holy life and sacrificial death as our dress.
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness,
My beauty are, my glorious dress.
Midst flaming worlds, in these array’d,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
(Nicholas von Zinzendorf, tr. by John Wesley)
I wonder if you’ve ever thought of the act of faith – putting your trust in Jesus Christ – as a way of clothing yourself with his blood and righteousness. We’re all filled with shame, shames of one kind or another. Maybe you are ashamed of your thoughts, your fantasies or your memories. You may be ashamed of your actions, of a sin you try to keep hidden. You may be ashamed of your body or your appearance, even when others think you’re attractive. You may be ashamed of something someone else did to you long ago.
Whatever they may be, I’d like to invite you to take your shames and cast them upon Jesus. Imagine him stripping all your shame away forever and covering them completely with his perfection. And then pray this:
“Lord Jesus, I thank you, I worship you, I love you, Lamb of God, slain for me. Amen.”