On a Friday morning 1,984 years ago, on an escarpment known as Golgotha – the Place of the Skull, Roman soldiers drove huge iron nails through the wrists and ankles of Jesus of Nazareth, affixing him to a wooden cross, and then they hefted it upright between two thieves also being crucified that morning. This man, Jesus of Nazareth, had spent the previous night living through six illegal trials, three at the hands of the Jewish hierarchy, three with the Romans. Throughout the trials the Nazarene was beaten until he was no longer recognizable, scourged – whipped with lashes knotted around bits of glass and rocks – until his back was in ribbons, and had a wreath of jagged thorns shoved down on his head – a mockery as well as an injury.
His crime? Nothing. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, said as much, but the pressure from the Jewish crowds was more than he wanted to bear, so he literally washed his hands of the responsibility, and did as the Jewish Pharisees and Saducees, and the crowds following them wanted. Why did the Pharisees care what happened to this carpenter-turned-teacher? Because this young man claimed to be God. And even worse than this blasphemy, he actually proved it, over and over again, healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the crowds that followed him. He paid no attention to the thousands of phony regulations they had added to the original Mosaic Law. He treated them with no deference to their position, deference they thought they deserved. He behaved with godly dignity, and power, and love.
He shamed them without even trying to do so. He also upended the scam they had going in the Temple. They had quite a thing going: a Jew would bring to the Temple an animal – a dove, or a lamb, for instance. The Pharisees would inspect the animal (which had to be perfect) and “find” a flaw. They would confiscate the imperfect animal, then sell to the petitioner a “perfect” replacement. Where did they get the “perfect” sacrifices? From the folks who had previously shown up with “imperfect” animals. These priests had it made. No overhead – all profit. Enter Jesus roaring through the courtyard overturning tables and declaring them all vipers. Accusing them of profaning His Father’s house. His father!?! No, the Pharisees weren’t going to take that.
But dramatic as it was – all the events of that historic week – the last three hours Jesus spent on that cross are what has affected all of human history – those centuries that came before the birth of Christ and for all of us who have come, and will come, later.
From noon until 3:00 that afternoon something almost incomprehensible happened. In some way we will never understand, all of the eternal hell due to each and every one of us was condensed into that small amount of time and attributed to the one man in all of history who did not deserve it. “My God, my God!” he screamed, “Why have you forsaken me?” He, who was God, who was also perfect man was separated, rejected, pushed away from everything good and perfect and true.
As God, He didn’t have to stay there and take it. The nails didn’t hold Him on that cross; His resolve to finish the task God the Father had set before Him kept Him there. “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
The sky darkened. The earth shook violently. The crowd scattered -- only a loyal few stayed at the foot of the cross. When the horror was over the torn man on the center cross said, “It is finished.” And he died.
At that moment the veil in the Temple – a 4-inch thick cloth weighing hundreds of pounds, ripped open from top to bottom. It was the veil that separated the Holy of Holies, the forbidden inner sanctum of the Temple, from the Holy Place, where priests came and went many times a day. The only biblical description we have of the veil is in Exodus and there it is talking not of Herod’s Temple (during Christ’s life), but of the Tabernacle – the tent the Jews moved from place to place in the wilderness. The Mishnah, i.e. rabbinical writings, describes it as being as thick as the breadth of a hand, twenty feet wide and sixty feet tall. Even if that description were exaggerated, it’s describing a substantial piece of cloth – and this was torn from the top to the bottom. Sixty feet up and enough force to tear a woven piece of cloth downward – the thought defies physics.
So does rising from the dead. Jesus Christ had been so badly beaten and abused that He wasn’t recognizable. That happened during Thursday night and Friday. By Friday night at sundown His body had been sealed in a tomb, and yet by Sunday morning the tomb was empty and a recognizable, living Jesus of Nazareth greeted Martha and the two Mary’s when they came to care for His body. His hands and feet still bore the nail holes. His side bore the wound made by the Roman spear, yet He was whole.
Why believe that? Many compelling reasons exist – extra-biblical accounts of His resurrection, the detailed accounts in all four gospels, the care taken by the Romans to prevent any hoaxes from being perpetrated. But the most compelling of all is what happened in the following centuries – people – thousands of people all over the Mediterranean went to their deaths over whether or not this resurrection took place. The apostles were there and they were martyred for believing that Jesus Christ was who He said He was – and why were they so sure? Because He rose from the dead and they saw it. They walked all over the known world spreading the word, being beaten, imprisoned, and killed for their efforts. Yet they never recanted and neither did the thousands who heard of the story from these men. You don’t do that for a hoax, for an illusion, for a whim.
On that Friday, Passover, just outside Jerusalem 1,984 years ago our imperfections died on the cross with Jesus Christ. We have only to accept, to receive to ourselves this gift of everlasting life and joy paid for during those three hours on the cross. We can choose to think it’s all a gruesome, fantastical tale, but since the gift has already been bought and paid for that would be a terrible waste. He did this for you, personally. He gave us each the freedom to choose eternal life, to choose His assistance and friendship during this life, to choose blessing not only for ourselves, but for all those around us. Think on these things.
I wish you all love and joy this Easter.