Luke 23:44&45 “It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining.”
We may not leave the sufferings of Christ too quickly, as though suggesting that we have ‘done’ the Cross and can go on to something else. We seem to be stating that it’s possible to take Calvary in our stride, that we can emphasize the centrality and significance of the cross – “It’s very important. See what attention is paid to it in the Scriptures,” – and yet we have failed to feel its overwhelming emotional power. I was helped as a young preacher by a sermon on the cross preached by a Scottish minister at the height of his powers. I searched all my notes and I found it and read it again with gratitude. I had forgotten why it had made such an impact on me, and the providence of finding it encouraged me to give it to you as Principal Macleod presented it many years ago. It had enlightened me and disturbed me and moved me then, and I hope that it will have the same impact on you. It was unforgettable to all who heard it, and I want you in this congregation to be helped by it and remember it too, and that will be worth my bearing any calumny for doing this.
The problem with the Cross is that it’s been made so logical and reasonable and theological a transaction. We’ve lived since we were children with the reality of “the green hill far away.” We have failed to stumble on it with a sense of discovery, like a man digging a hole in a field for some utterly mundane motive and discovering a treasure trove. But that is one of the keys to appreciating its glory. We first have to see the unexpected here, the light of the world is here, in this impenetrable darkness; the blessed and beautiful Lord is transformed into looking like a side of beef; the utterly innocent is here condemned to this long dying and God is doing nothing to deliver him; Christ the wisdom and power of God hanging here in such folly and weakness.
The foolishness of the cross resides in the marvelous bringing together of this glorious person and this cross. He is the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of his person and he is being crucified. The one by whom God made the worlds is crucified. The only begotten Son of God who was in the beginning with God, the one who knew no sin, hangs here. The Lord of glory ends his life immolated to a cross. What right did God have to do this to his Son? What did he hope to achieve by enacting this absurdity, the long lingering death of his holy Child Jesus in the darkness? Why did the anathema of God lie on – of all people – his Son? And why on earth did he take it and bear it?
The great answer that is given us in the gospel is that he was being made to bear all that our sin deserved, the whole hatred and condemnation of God for all that is sordid and sick and ugly and hurtful and foul – all that filthy sewerage covers him like the darkness veils him from sight. He is there as the Lamb of God hanging in our place, as our substitute, and he is propitiating the wrath of a holy God. The whole recoil of God at everything that contradicts and despises what God is was there freely received by Christ and he did this because he loved us so dearly. So I have returned again to this scene of deep darkness and I am asking what was involved in this? What was Christ suffering on the cross? What did God cover when he decreed darkness for three hours?
IN THE DARKNESS CHRIST WAS SUFFERING PHYSICALLY.
There was a body prepared for the Saviour. It was prepared for him by God his Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. That body was identical in every aspect with our bodies. It has the same kind of nervous system. It had exquisite sensitivity to pain – a thorn or even a pinprick on any part of the body would be immediately registered in his brain. God did not give him any built-in analgesic. He had the same dependence on nutrients as ourselves. His body had the same kind of physical limitations as far as energy is concerned, and a vulnerability to illness and exhaustion. In that body Christ hung in the darkness. His body was a part of the holocaust, just as we are called upon by God to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God, so Christ suffered in the darkness as he carried our guilt in his own body on the tree. In that body the Lord knew hunger and thirst. In that body he knew physical exhaustion. In that body he experienced the unimaginable agony of Golgotha, and all that was involved in the scourging, and being beaten up by the soldiers, and the immolation as they attached this body of his to the cross, and there was all the suspension of his body hanging on the nails hour after hour. There was the dehydration under the effects of the heat, and at last the humiliation of death and dissolution.
It seems to me that one of the great comforts we have as we face the reality of physical pain in our own lives is to know that our Lord understands. Whatever the extreme that our own agony may be we can never scream to the Lord that we are here going into places that he’s not traversed, because he has traversed them. “He bore our sins in his own body on the tree.”
IN THE DARKNESS CHRIST WAS SUFFERING EMOTIONALLY.
The Lord Jesus had a human soul and a human spirit. He had a true human psychology, and in that psychology the Lord suffered emotionally. I think it is possible to present this truth in an utterly unbalanced way. I happen to think that too much is made of the claim that Christ is said to have wept but never said to have smiled or to have laughed. You bear in mind that the Spirit’s fruit is joy, and you consider the constant emphasis in the New Testament of rejoicing being the believer’s dominant emotion. Then joy was an indispensable part of the Lord’s authentic humanness, that he was a profoundly contented person. We are told of a time when he rejoiced in the spirit. He delighted to do God’s will. Even though his first thirty years were humble and he knew that he faced being made sin for us yet he knew heights of peace and contentment and delight far above us. He was a man in whose heart there was melody to the Lord. I want to emphasize that most firmly because despondency and depression are normally violations of God’s will for his people. They are often sinful manifestations of our own human egocentricity. So Christ, I’d say, did rejoice with the most elevated happiness in the depths of his soul.
Yet, having said that, it is most wondrously evident in the New Testament that Christ also experienced the depths of despondency and the bitterness of human sorrow. We find him at the grave of Lazarus and he is weeping, and again I think that that is marvelous. It is marvelous because today we are so often told that it is a sign of weakness to cry. And I am saying that sorrow in bereavement has this great mandate in the suffering Saviour and his tears when he was with the two sisters. When death separates us from loved ones (separates us only temporarily, but devastatingly) then we have the right from our Lord’s example, the right to weep.
We are told by Paul not to sorrow as those who have no hope, but we are not told, “Don’t be sad.” In fact we find in Acts Luke telling us that when Stephen was killed “devout men carried him and made great lamentation over him.” It is a marvelous divine accommodation to human infirmity, the divine right we have to weep. It is imperative in every experience of bereavement that we encourage those whose hearts are broken not to stifle their sorrow. That would be unnatural and inhuman. We weren’t intended to go through the valley of the shadow of death as if we were stones or stoics. Christ himself wept. He looked on the city of Jerusalem and we are told that what he saw made him weep. In fact we are told that he wailed over it because what he saw was so desolating. He saw the hardness of their hearts and their utter materialism, and their spiritual blindness and obstinacy. Jesus cried aloud. I wonder whether his disciples were embarrassed. We have the same mandate to wail under sorrow, over the sins, and over the obstinacy, and the desolation of people we know in our own society.
Yet in a deeper way still the Lord plumbed the depth of our human emotion. We see that in Christ in Gethsemane. We hear him confessing that his soul is exceedingly sorrowful unto death. We hear him say that he is “sore amazed and very heavy.” We actually find this same word on the lips of the apostles as they came that Easter morning to the empty tomb and they looked and were ‘amazed.’ They were in the presence of the incomprehensible, in the presence of the naked power of God and they felt bewildered. They couldn’t take that in their stride, and I feel that as Christ contemplated the reality of the anathema of God on Golgotha that he was emotionally overborne.
There was an eeriness for him in the cup that the Father had put in his hand, and there are times, aren’t there, when God’s will for us fills us with amazement. How unfaithful I would be to the Lord who gave me his word if I were to suggest that the life of every Christian was always easy and never less than manageable, always one in which we can win triumphant victories over events and circumstances, because we know so often that the road is eventful and the pilgrimage is difficult and full of things that fill us with amazement. The Psalmist says to God so plainly, “You have given us the wine of astonishment to drink.” It’s almost, “You have made us drunk.” They reel and stagger and are at their wit’s end. Some of us have known moments like that, when we seemed such poor followers of the superhuman Christ. He has left us an example, and promised us that we can do all things through him who gives us strength, but we were not walking in his steps. Yet now we are looking at our Lord Jesus and we can see that he knew this same kind of amazement and wonder; “Can I manage this? Can I cope? Can I handle this weakness of my own humanness?” Christ full of sorrow; Christ full of amazement; Christ full of fear as he contemplated the reality of Golgotha.
I don’t believe that the cup was there simply for the Lord to take in his stride. I believe that he went to Calvary willingly, but behind that submission and acceptance there raged a mighty struggle. He had to sweat drops of blood to bring his created humanness into accepting the will of God. There was his recoil from the divine anathema, and that is perfectly natural. That was merely a tribute to the accuracy of his own insight into the awesomeness of the wrath of God. So the Lord goes through all these emotions, of sorrow, and amazement and of fear, all that emotional pain, it’s all part of the anathema. He is sorrowful even unto death, and so there his physical pain and his emotional pain.
IN THE DARKNESS CHRIST WAS SUFFERING SOCIALLY.
I mean by that that Christ suffered in his own relationships. Now let’s understand that man bears the image of God, that the God whose image he bears is actually a Triune God. He doesn’t exist simply as one, but as Three in One, a God who lives always in relationship. You remember that sight of God we’re given in John’s gospel, in the opening words concerning the reality of God; “In the beginning the Word was with God and the Word was God.” So that in the beginning there was God with God. There was not only God in the glory of his unity and the glory of his own uniqueness, but there was that marvelous reality of God with God. That means in God there was always withness; there was always togetherness; there was never loneliness with God; there was never isolation; there was love in God, because from eternity God the Father loved God the Son, and that love was reciprocated, and love is impossible for a monad, for one being who exists in undifferentiated isolation. So in God there is always withness, there is always love, there is always fellowship, and there is always communion, and when God made man he made man in his own image. God made man for community, and for fellowship, and for withness. Man must find that need fulfilled in his fellowship with God at one great level. God walked in the Garden, and God spoke to man and there was intimate familiarity before the fall. In that vertical plane man had fellowship with God; man had a withness with God. God said to our first parent, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will give him an help meet for him.” God then provided for man’s social needs, a wife and a family to meet man’s needs for togetherness, with his own kind.
And it is a glorious thing that when Jesus Christ became man then he became man in the image of God, in other words, he became man in the image of God’s togetherness, and God’s withness. Christ’s need for fellowship found marvelous fulfillment of course in fellowship with God, in those marvelous conversations and in those prayers that Christ offered to his Father. He went as the only-begotten Son through the rent curtain into the most holy place, and he went with boldness and he spoke with God, and there he found fellowship.
But I find something more glorious still . . . I find that even in Christ that social instinct, that need for fellowship that could not find exhaustive fulfillment in his fellowship with God. I read that he chose twelve, and I might think at first that he chose them to instruct them, or that he chose them to commission and send them forth as his sole ambassadors. But I also found that he chose twelve to be “with him.” I find little in the New Testament more glorious than that, for it speaks so eloquently of the reality of our Lord’s incarnation and our Lord’s humanness. Our Lord was not a loner; he needed the fellowship of those whose human nature he shared. There was a need, and a loneliness, and an isolation that could only be met in the togetherness of those who were bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. Christ had laid hold of the seed of Abraham. He had therefore assumed flesh and blood, and he took that full reality of that flesh and blood in that he chose twelve to be with him, and I am saying to you that in the closing days of his glorious ministry to Galilee and Jerusalem that need for others was not lessened but intensified. You will find that as Golgotha draws nearer that the Lord sees less and less of the world and he preaches less and less in the open air and the Temple precincts. He withdraws increasingly into his own inner circle. The last night of his life is spent in the Upper Room with the eleven and with the reprobate one, Judas Iscariot, and he goes from that Upper Room into his final experience in Gethsemane.
There he takes to accompany him Peter and James and John. Why? Do you think it was only in order for them to observe and simply to report? Do you think that it was exclusively for their sake, that they would learn some great spiritual lesson? What did he say to them? “Come and watch with me.” Just as if we would tell somebody, “Pray with me.” So the Son of God sought someone to bear his burdens, some who would share the oppression with him and watch with him so that he was not alone in the hour of his agony. And it is at that very point that he experiences his social deprivation. He returns and he finds them sleeping. He says, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” Simon had said, “Though I shall die with you I will never forsake you in any way.” “You, Simon, said you would never, never forsake me.’ “Never” – that marvelous word of the rhetorician, the popular word of human oratory, and yet he couldn’t keep watch for a single hour. Not long afterwards they all forsook him and they fled, in spite of all their protestations of loyalty they forsook him and shot off like scared rabbits.
Then another blow came to him, as the Lord was being led away he overheard Peter, that great bombastic, heroic, steadfast, brave Peter, cursing at a man, “I never knew that blasted man. Let me tell you again, read my lips, ‘NEVER. Never!’” And our Lord is utterly alone in his desolation. In that hour when he most needed one sympathetic eye to catch his eye and flicker its support, or someone who would listen and indicate that he understood what Jesus was doing, that he knew he wasn’t a criminal and a blasphemer. Jesus needed someone to say to him “I know why you are doing this and I appreciate it so much and marvel at your love.” There was nobody! He trod the winepress alone, and of the people there was none with him. He was all by himself, an object of ridicule for the soldiers, an object of hatred for all those Pharisees, an object of heart-broken sorrow to his mother and those women, and an object of failure to his disciples. They all had forsaken him and they all had fled.
There are some Christians who have borne their testimony, and because they have exercised a prophetic ministry they have known what it is to be misunderstood, and they have known what it is to be forsaken by one of their closest associates. They have had men to falsely accuse them, and men have twisted their motives. Now I am saying that part of the great glory of Calvary is the comfort it offers to men of that kind. But I want to add what a gulf there is between our obloquy and his! I doubt if we have ever been so totally rejected. We have had wives to comfort us, and grown up children and our brethren who have sympathized so eloquently with us. There has been a faint voice somewhere, the voice of one’s own integrity, assuring us and keeping us from despair. But there is Jesus and he went into the darkness and he was utterly alone. If you feel that yours is a lonely path and that your universe is empty and your world has collapsed, then stand close by the man of Calvary! There is the ultimate one, and he hangs in total and unqualified repudiation. Nobody is doing anything. Those who care are a great way off. No one at all remotely understands and no one appreciates what is happening. Every other martyr has had his supporters, and each one has had his consolers, and they have had friends and followers. They may have had the comfort of hurling their defiance at his accusers, but the Messiah is all alone. The one astonishing exception is the criminal hanging on a cross alongside him saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” But I dare say that long before Christ entered his final agony that that man had lost all the capacity to engage in consoling his Lord and Saviour. So the Lord as he hung in the darkness experiences physical pain, and emotional pain and social pain. Then at last . . .
IN THE DARKNESS CHRIST WAS SUFFERING SPIRITUALLY.
There are two levels to this:
i] Christ’s total exposure to satanic onslaught. This is “the hour of the power of darkness.” The devil drives his cohorts to attack the Son of God, wave after wave of them. They were legion. He hurls his own blazing arrows, his incendiaries, into the heart of the Saviour, the incendiaries of doubt, the incendiaries of blasphemy, the incendiaries of despair. I do not say, and I would not allow that they caused any conflagration there because they found in Christ no combustible material, morally or spiritually. But the pain in the darkness was there. It was the valley of the shadow of death. It was the hour of the authority of darkness.
There is a marvelous picture in Colossians 2. We are told that Christ has delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of his own dear Son. It is this picture, that he has rescued us from the power of darkness. He has made a raid, an incursion into the kingdom of darkness. It is almost, to use today’s picture, a redemptive commando raid. Christ rescued us. Christ was used by God in this tremendous deliverance which involved the Prince of the kingdom of light and love entering the kingdom of darkness, there to be made ever so vulnerable, surrounded by danger, attacked and assaulted for hours by all Satan’s missiles of doubt and Exocets of blasphemous thoughts with his endeavors to draw our Lord not only into despondency but into sheer despair. That onslaught is unleashed by the gates of hell, in all their cunning and all their malice and all their spiritual capacity. The Lord was in the darkness vulnerable to that terrible spiritual anguish. The kingdom of darkness had settled on him and hidden him seeking to devour him. That was one cause of his pain.
ii] Christ’s total exposure to the dereliction. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” Now we know that both Matthew and Mark record that cry, but that neither Luke nor John do so. We don’t know why that is the case, but Luke tells us of the impenetrable darkness. This was the time of the God’s anathema when Jehovah put a gulf between himself and his Son. It meant on one level the loss of the assurance of God’s love. It also meant the loss of the sense of God’s nearness and God’s assistance. I don’t believe that God ever stopped helping him. He had said, “Behold my servant whom I uphold,” and I believe that God the Father was upholding God the Son throughout his agony. I believe that it was through the eternal Spirit that he was offering himself without spot to God. But I do believe that in the darkness Christ was not conscious of the Father upholding him, or the Spirit ministering to him.
Now that, men and women, is a remote parable of aspects of our own experience. There are times when God’s help is very real and yet it is totally unappreciated by ourselves. God’s presence and his concern and care for us are right there. Oh yes they are. “I will never leave you nor forsake you. Behold I am with you always.” Yet we can be in the darkness, and we have no sense at all that the Light of the World is there alongside us loving us with a love that will not let us go. The darkness veiled the lovely face of his Father and he lost the sense of being loved. He never lost the love of God the Father for God the Son. God was never so delighted in his Son as when he became obedient to him even to this cross and its darkness. Christ had been lovely and pleasant in his life. What pleasure he gave his Father throughout his life, and never more at this precise time, hanging in darkness. His self-sacrifice was a sweet aroma to Almighty God. What a marvelous fragrance filled heaven that moment and it was ascending from the shambles of Golgotha, and God loved him for it, I mean loved him as he had never loved him before, and yet God couldn’t tell him. The love was a reality, but the sense of it was withheld, even the assurance that he was the Christ, the Son of the living God, was not experienced at all. All he could see and feel was the darkness.
You ask me whether I can bring any objective proof text to prove that point? I take you simply to those great words themselves, “Eloi, Eloi lama bach-thani. My God my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” Whenever we hear Christ praying anywhere else he is always saying, “Abba Father.” It is fashionable to hear preachers say that we can translate that, “Daddy” and then they proceed to pray and say “Daddy” to God, but he was never that to Jesus Christ. He was “Holy Father . . . Righteous Father.” We don’t, when we are men and women, normally call our fathers ‘Daddy’ We say ‘Dad.’ And so too with Christ with all his sense of reverence for the righteousness and holiness of the infinite and omnipotent Creator yet it was “Abba Father,” but not here. He cannot say “Father” here, not in the darkness but rather these words come out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Of course it was more poignant by the fact that he was quoting Scripture, the opening words of Psalm 22, and when the end comes that is what we remember and that is what we cast ourselves upon, not our words, but God’s words that most plainly express our own feelings. Generally they are our feelings of hope and trust in the promises of the Bible to sinners who shall not walk alone through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Is there no hope in these words on the lips of our Lord? There is. It is still “My God.” There is never despair even in the darkness. There was in many ways faith and hope triumphing over impossible deprivation. That is the glory that comes out of the darkness. It is still, “Mine, mine, mine. I know that thou art mine.” But it is “My God” not “My Father” because all around is darkness and he is conscious of the numinous and heavenliness and holiness and sin-hatingness of God. He is fully conscious of the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of man, and at that precise moment it is all concentrated and focused in his body on the tree. The Sonship of Jesus was intact but obscured. I am not saying that he doubted it, but I do say that he was unaware of the tidings of comfort and joy that that sonship gives us – “I, even I am the son of the King!”
It was a desolating darkness, desolate of a sense of help and desolate of a sense of love and desolate of a sense of status. He cries and there is no answer. “I called but there is none to hear.” You bear in mind the glory of that, that it was an experience for which our Lord Jesus had had no preparation because he had walked in unbroken fellowship and communion. He had been speaking to him and been with his Father from eternity always face to face. He had spoken to him in the Upper Room with marvelous familiarity. He had laid out before God exactly what he wanted, “Father I will that they whom thou hast given me be with me where I am.” He had prayed confidently in Gethsemane, “Father, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless not my will but thine be done.” And he cries on Calvary out of the depths of unparalleled need to the God who had always been there, but now in the darkness God was no longer there. There was no answer. No angels were sent into the darkness to comfort him as there had been in Gethsemane. No voice penetrated the darkness as there had been at his baptism at the beginning of his ministry, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” No doves descended through the darkness and rested on him as he hung on the cross. No encouragement was given him to believe that there was peace with God while he was made sin for us. No words were spoken from heaven now, “Well done good and faithful servant.” There was only the eloquent and intolerable silence of the heavens that were like a thick sheet of brass above him bouncing back all his searching for comfort and assurance.
Here is Jesus in the darkness of abandonment; Jesus in the far country and the distant city; Jesus the scapegoat bearing the sins of the world; Jesus the Lamb of God bearing cosmic sin. In that darkness of hellish gloom he cried to God and he heard nothing but the sound of his own voice, against the backcloth of the chanting crowd, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
This is the price our Lord paid for our redemption, that pain that was physical and emotional and social and spiritual. All coordinating together; none of them relieved for a moment, not taking it in turns to launch their own attacks on him, but all these missiles working together and never stopping thudding in during those three hours. And those pains that he endured that our salvation has secured. Only by those pains are we healed and cleansed and forgiven. Only by that suffering of this God-man has redemption and forgiveness come to us. He paid the price and he paid it to the last penny. This is the only hope for sinners. What the Lord of glory, our brave young Saviour did in the dark agony of Golgotha because he loved his people so much. I can’t understand how you can’t fall before him in wonder and take him as your God and Saviour. “God forgive me only because of what your Son did for me on the cross. Pardon me for Jesus sake. Wash me from my sins because of him.” Pray like that with prayers full of the love of Jesus Christ for you, and don’t stop until you know he has heard and answered your prayers. “God be merciful to me the sinner.”
10th March 2013 GEOFF THOMAS