When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they...
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
If we read Mark’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion in one sitting, it would take no more than the time it will take me to share with you today. Fifteen minutes, maybe? In fact, you could read all the Gospel accounts in less time than it takes to watch a sitcom.
Life moves fast. Entire blocks of time slip past us unnoticed, so I think it can be easy to lose perspective on how horrific, how excruciating, and how emotionally and spiritually exhausting Jesus’ suffering was—not to mention that it wasn’t over in 15 minutes, or a half hour, or even a couple hours. Plus, many of us grew up with a sanitized version. Every portrayal of Jesus was a pastoral scene with sheep, admiring disciples, kids at his feet, and a halo on his head. Songs about being “washed in the blood” were up-tempo hand-clappers. Portraits of the crucified Christ showed a serene man with great abs and blood only at his side, on his palms, and a drop or two at his brow.
Now, more recent film portrayals have been grittier… bloodier, and reflect a hunger for realism—though I’m not sure if that’s on the part of Christians or Hollywood. But either way, after a few short minutes, the scenes are over. And we can return to safer “feel-good” daily life.
I don’t bring this up to condemn us. Actually, it’s the opposite. After all, Jesus suffered so very much specifically so we wouldn’t be condemned.
So let’s break down the “why.”
What motivates us to keep the Cross at arm’s length?
If you’re over 30 or 40, you remember a time when biblical stories and phrases were more well-known in broader culture, whether or not people went to church. That may seem like a lovely foregone era, but when complex and deep concepts make it into popular culture, much is lost in translation. The result is that a lot of us grew up with that sanitized Christianity that I mentioned before. The focus becomes good behavior, obey your folks, and make a good name for yourself in the community. And Jesus becomes a community leader rather than a Savior.
Praise God for how he has moved in the global church and we do recognize that deep faith far exceeds broad general knowledge. But you know what they say about old habits. Unlearning sometimes takes longer than learning. And a whitewashed version of the Good News isn’t good news.
Bad News Always Gets Us Down
Have you ever had a war in your life between want and need?
I don’t mean just “I want that new car” versus “I really just need new tires.” Or, “I need to wait in line all night for that new Apple product.” (There may be loose autobiographical references in this paragraph, though preordering is much preferred to camping.)
What I mean is sometimes we want what sounds like a good thing—the right thing—but we’re way off base.
Jesus’ disciple Peter rebuked him when he said he must die (Matthew 16:22-23). If you and I were there, we’d have said, “Right on, Peter! We’ll protect Jesus with you!” And we would have thought that was the right thing to do. But we would have missed the point, just like Peter did. And it’s not because we shouldn’t support our leaders. Or that human rights are not worth defending. It’s because they failed to catch on to Christ’s subtle and not-so-subtle explanations of what would happen. And what needed to happen was exactly what we wouldn’t want: for Jesus to die.
There’s no worse news than that. So even though we know that the real Good News, or Gospel, is necessarily connected to all sorts of bad news (like sin and suffering), it’s still hard to accept—and even worse to be confronted with. Beatings? Bad news. Being whipped until your skin is torn wide open? Bad news. Forsaken by friends and family? Bad news. Excruciating, long-lasting suffering followed by suffocation? Really, really bad news.
If someone says to you, “I have good news, and I have bad news,” honestly, don’t you just want the good news?
Fear of Responsibility
And then there’s that four-letter word: FEAR. If I embrace the truth—in all it’s horror and gore—something will be expected of me. Responsibilities pound on me from every angle in this crazy, fast-paced life. Let’s face it: if I don’t watch The Passion of the Christ this Easter, but instead keep a light, pastel mood to the whole season, that’s less stress for me.
I hear you. I have days when so many messages come my way that I even get miffed at my microwave for emitting a reminder beep that I didn’t take my food out after it was finished cooking. Leave me alone! Does that sound anything like your stress level?
“This faith thing is supposed to make my life easier!” And it’s that idea that again keeps the Cross at arm’s length.
What Is the Result?
When we “check out” from the full reality of the cross, we develop a raging case of what I call, “Meh.”
People are suffering? That’s sad, but… meh.
You need me to make an impact in this ministry? That would be nice, but I’m so busy, so… meh. That attitude quickly turns into:
A Lack of Compassion
When Jesus’ suffering is understood for what an amazing sacrifice it was… not just for six hours on a Friday two thousand years ago, but for three decades—and all of human history prior—then it’s hard to fall into the trap of fitting service into our schedules, rather than being at the ready for the call of God to send us into the midst of human need.
The natural progression of moving our focus from an appropriate understanding of Jesus and his mission is that next our eyes move away from the needs of others too, and then focus square on ourselves.
Then we pick up a new biblical phrase: “Woe is me.”
Have you been there? Now, I’ve been through tough times. And many of you have been through things I can’t comprehend. Your suffering is legitimate. But when we forget that Jesus truly suffered more than enough to understand our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15-16), then we start to feel alone. And we think that nothing could be as bad as what we’re going through. And surely, NO ONE UNDERSTANDS.
But you know what that is? Idolatry.
I’ve made myself and my suffering the object of my attention, even affection. Because it’s the lone comfort in the midst of trial. And that’s only because I’ve taken Jesus out of the equation, since in my mind, “he couldn’t possibly understand.”
What I’m saying in this context seems obvious. Just like in hindsight, we recognize the foolishness of the disciples’ actions. But in the moment, I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same things.
So how do we cure this problem?
Take Seriously the Suffering of the Crucifixion
No one means to diminish what Jesus went through, but when we realize we haven’t really grasped it, then we must take the step to take it seriously.
Take away from something that is absorbing your attention—and put that focus back on him and what he gave to and for us.
Take Seriously the Suffering of the Father
Then, let’s recognize that this didn’t just start when Jesus was born in a manger (another sanitized event). It goes back to the garden with the very first sin. And God suffered in that broken relationship with humans. The earth suffered. We suffered. When we recognize how much suffering has spread from that original action, we can appreciate even more the significance of Good Friday, aptly named not for Jesus’ dying, but for the reconciliation he accomplished on the Cross.
Take Seriously the Trust Jesus Had in His Father
So here’s the most important part: Jesus’ statement, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” is, as one of my favorite biblical scholars put it, “a prayer of confidence and trust” (Metzger).
He’s gone through the incomprehensible—experiencing what just the night before he prayed he wouldn’t have to go through (haven’t we all prayed that at one time or another, for things that didn’t kill us or we wouldn’t be here today). But through to his dying breath, he trusts. He is the model for what Paul would later claim in his second letter to Timothy (4:7): he finished the race. He kept the faith.
But the words he spoke were not new, or impulsive. They were carefully selected. Jesus quotes Psalm 31—verse 5 in our Bible, 6 in the Hebrew Bible. Written by King David, this was a display of trust amidst personal attack. David, under fire, was choosing to appoint God in charge of his spirit (as the Hebrew word literally means). By the next century after Jesus’ life on earth, this verse from the Psalms was documented as part of Jewish bedtime prayers… and could very well have been in practice during Jesus’ lifetime. If this was his version of “now I lay me down to sleep,” he chose his final breath to utter it one more time (Bruce, p. 374.)
Apply Trust in the Good Times and the Hard Times
We don’t have to just rely on our imaginations or Hollywood to grasp the magnitude of Jesus’ suffering. We’ve got eyewitness testimony—and it’s somewhat unintentional.
You see, the disciples knew Jesus’ suffering was bad. Not only were they there to see it, but they abandoned him because it was so bad that they thought they’d followed the wrong guy.
But the witnesses who stayed around to the very end, because they were part of crucifying him, sure recognized who he was—because of his suffering and how he died. “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
So I hope you don’t mind if I talk to myself right now. Really, there’s great biblical precedent for it—like when the psalmists say, “Why so downcast, O my soul?” (Psalms 42-43). But if you’ll indulge me, you’re welcome to your own application.
I’m telling myself: get some perspective, girl—Jesus was executed in one of the most excruciating ways history has ever thought up. But the punishment was fitting—for my crimes. So when I’m going through a tough time, he gets it. And he cares. And that’s exactly why I should too.
It’s not news that there is tremendous suffering and brokenness in this world. Whether it’s my own suffering, or that of those close to me, or the suffering of people far away whom I may never meet here on earth, it’s enough to overwhelm and activate fear. But Jesus, our model in his sacrifice, is also our model in trust. With his last breath—“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
So, “now I lay me down to sleep,” and I trust him. He’s been through it all. He’s proven he knows what needs to be. He’s got this. “My help comes from the Lord” (Psalm 121:2).