You’ve probably already heard a good sermon or two on the Easter story in the past few days. I hope you will welcome a little more reflection on this incredible story as we continue to celebrate Easter together.
N.T. Wright, at least, would like us to think more about the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. Maybe this is reason enough to read this post! Or perhaps Wright is correct about the Gospel stories being under-emphasized in our theologies of the cross (196-97).
I had a chance to study Luke’s version of the story (Luke 23:26-49) in preparation for a message I delivered on Good Friday. If I had to summarize what I learned in one sentence it would be that Luke tells the story of the cross as both the accomplishment of our salvation and the coming of God’s kingdom.
The Cross is Our Salvation
“He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One!” (v. 35). The mockery of the rulers and one of the crucified criminals is based on the assumption that Jesus’ crucifixion is a refutation of Jesus’ capacity as savior.
Behind the shouting and the mockery, however, we readers are invited to hear the other criminal’s confession that Jesus suffers innocently and Jesus’ reply, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43).
The criminal’s confession of Jesus’ innocence as Jesus endures the suffering of the cross recalls the description of God’s servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This passage describes God’s servant suffering innocently to accomplish salvation for sinners. With fear and trembling we confess what is beyond the imagination of the first criminal and the rulers in Jerusalem: that Jesus is savior precisely because he suffers on a cross.
The Cross is God’s Kingdom Come
The soldiers’ mockery is, similarly, based on the assumption that Jesus’ crucifixion is a refutation of his kingship. They jokingly offer him bad wine and say, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (v. 37). In their mockery, the soldiers are truly allied with the powers of darkness (cf. 22:53): they are echoing Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. Satan had tempted Jesus to save himself from death and become king without enduring the cross (4:5-11).
Jesus’ final rejection of this temptation occurs at his arrest. One of Jesus’ disciples “saw what would follow” (22:49) – that is, that Jesus would be killed – and struck the high priest’s servant with a sword. However, Jesus says, “No more of this!” and then heals the man’s ear (22:50-51). After he is crucified, Jesus asks his Father to forgive his executioners, even as they cast lots for his clothing (v. 34).
The soldiers cannot imagine a king who acts like this.
But Luke lets us in on a secret. Among other things, Jesus’ addresses to God as his Father on the cross (v. 34, 46) indicate that he still sees himself as the royal son in David’s line (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:6-7; cf. Luke 3:22; 9:35). Jesus is king on the cross.
Moreover, Jesus brings about God’s kingdom on the cross. He is not led into temptation. He forgives those who have sinned against him (11:4). He loves his enemies: blessing those who curse him, praying for those who abuse him, and not withholding his cloak from those who take his tunic (6:27-29). It has been well observed: “the cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the Kingdom; it is the Kingdom come” (Yoder 61).
Simon the Cyrene
I end with an observation about Simon the Cyrene. Although he is only an unknown bystander, he gets a role to play in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. When Luke describes Simon the Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross to the place of the skull, he gives us a striking symbol of Jesus’ own characterization of discipleship as cross-bearing (Luke 9:23; 14:27).
With some more fear and trembling, then, we find Luke inviting us into the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. He is inviting us to remember the story of Jesus’ crucifixion as an example to follow.
Wright, N.T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. New York: HarperOne, 2016.
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.