“GOLGOTHA: A PLACE OF ATONEMENT”
From the Upper Room to the Empty Tomb – Part 5
An article published recently by U.S. News & World Report stated that over the course of the past fifty years the three most identifiable symbols worldwide were as follows: (1) the swastika, (2) the Coca Cola symbol, and (3) Mickey Mouse.
Now I don’t know if that surprises you or not, but it certainly surprised me when I read it. I really thought that the cross would be at the top of the list. I mean, it adorns nearly every Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox church in the country. It adorns the neck of millions of people nearly every day. You can hardly go to a cemetery without seeing a cross as a grave marker. And you can hardly take a trip anywhere in our country without eventually seeing, usually on a hill somewhere along the highway, three crosses standing, giving silent testimony to Jesus Christ.
Now I am convinced that the cross has not lost its identity due to lack of use. Maybe what has happened is that people have become so accustomed to seeing it that it has somehow lost its meaning for them. And maybe the temptation is to take the cross for granted as just another decoration, or piece of jewelry, or architectural design.
Today’s topic, as we journey together with Jesus From the Upper Room to the Empty Tomb, will come as no surprise to you. There is no symbol referred to more often in sermons than that of the old rugged cross. In our text from Matthew chapter 27, the 33rd verse tells us, “They came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skill).”
Now Golgotha is the Hebrew word for the more familiar Latin rendering “Calvary.” The location is one in the same. If you were to take a trip to the Holy Land today, one of the places you would undoubtedly visit is The Place of the Skull. I am told by those who have actually been there that it is an eerie feeling to look up at this rocky desolate place in which you can see the form of a skull. It is a lifeless place. It is a place that’s not very attractive. It was here that the criminals were brought to die. Hebrews 13:12 points out that “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.” You see, it was an execution too horrible to carry out within the city limits. It was a sight too graphic to take place within the confines of the city, so they went out to this lonely hill of brutality to crucify our Lord.
This morning I am here to tell you that there is nothing in this world, there is nothing in all the Bible, that is more important than what we will talk about the next three weeks—the death, burial, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without a doubt they are familiar stories to you. But it is my hope and prayer that you will listen with fresh ears and receptive hearts so that you can better understand how it is that God took this instrument of cruel death and somehow transformed it into a symbol of life for the Christian.
I. A PLACE OF SUFFERING.
First, I want you to notice that Golgotha was a place of suffering.
Now on numerous occasions Jesus had warned His disciples, stating that He would die – that He would be crucified and that He would rise on the third day. He had revealed that to them several different times.
But now that day finally arrived and it was a day of physical suffering.
There was a scourging, which was followed by a beating. Commentators tell us that the majority of those who were victims of a Roman scourging did not survive the event. Most were unable to live through a beating like that.
But Jesus did. You see, Jesus was a carpenter. He was strong and fit. In His brutalized condition, He even carried the cross part of the way to Golgotha. Matthew 27:31 says, “After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross” (vv. 31, 32).
In Matthew 16:24, several months prior to the crucifixion event, Jesus says this to His followers: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” And what Jesus is proving to the world on the day of His crucifixion is that He was not the exception to the rule, He was the example. He was willing to practice what He preached and He refused the easy road.
In Matthew 27:34 we’re told, “There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it.”
You see, this was a time of intense pain. The 35th verse says they crucified Him. Do you know that that entailed? It involved stripping Him of His clothing, taking metal spikes and embedding them through his wrists and feet into a wooden cross, and then watching Him slowly suffocate and bleed to death—knowing that all the time the person that was being crucified had the knowledge that they would never come down from that cross alive. And frequently the soldiers would tilt the cross slightly forward in an attempt to add more weight upon the body of the person being crucified, thus speeding up the entire process. It would cause excruciating pain, and as a result their heart would either rupture or they would suffocate much quicker. It was a heinous and sickening sight—one I really don’t think we can fully comprehend in our civilized society. Tacitus, an early historian, wrote: “Crucifixion was a despicable way to die.” In fact, crucifixion was so terrible that no Roman citizen was permitted to be executed that way, regardless his crime. It was too inhumane and to undignified for even the most vile Roman criminal.
But there wasn’t just physical pain at Golgotha, there was also emotional pain and suffering.
If you have ever been through a traumatic experience, then you would probably agree that there are times when emotional pain and stress can be far worse than physical pain. Just look at what Jesus endured. While He hung upon the cross, the 35th verse tells us, “…they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there” (vv. 35, 36).
It’s almost reminiscent of what we read about back in Genesis chapter 37, where we find Joseph being tossed into a pit by his brothers and being left there to die. Do you remember what happens? His brothers sit down and eat their lunch right next to the well, completely ignoring their younger brother’s pleadings for mercy. That is pretty much the scene unfolding here. While Jesus hangs on the cross dying, the soldiers gamble over who is going to get His belongings—some clothes.
They also infer guilt by association. Verse 37 says, “Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.”
Now the priests had been unsuccessful in attempting to persuade Pontius Pilate to change what it was that he had written. They felt it was too much a statement of fact—THE KING OF THE JEWS. But Pontius Pilate was sick and tired of being bullied by the religious leaders of his time, and he said, “What I have written, I have written” (John 19:22), and he was unwilling to change it.
So as a result of that, it forced the religious leaders to try two different ways to discredit what the sign said.
The first is found in verse 38: “Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.”
They surrounded Him on either side with notorious criminals. And the reason they did that was so that they could insinuate what they had been unable to prove. You see, the inference was that “birds of a feather flock together.” And if you just glanced up at one of the crosses and saw one of these terrible criminals on one side, then you had to think, “Well, the guy in the middle surely must be far worse.
But they didn’t just stop there, they chose to verbally assault Him, too, in an attempt to make a farce of the words: KING OF THE JEWS. You see, the Jewish leaders were so infuriated at Pilate—the sign sounded so real—that their only recourse was to set up shop right at the foot of the cross, right at the foot of Calvary. There they did their best to discredit what the sign said, to discredit Jesus through the use of sarcasm.
Verse 39 says, “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you [really] are the Son of God!” (vv. 39, 40). Then look at the 41st verse: “In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself!’” (vv. 41-42).
Now let’s stop right there. Did you catch what just happened? Did you catch what they said. “He saved others,” they said. Even in the midst of their anger they still could not deny the truth, and they themselves accidentally pay tribute and honor to Jesus Christ. “Well, he did save others, but he can’t save himself!”
Verse 43: “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
These people hated Jesus Christ with a passion, and this was their day, their hour of triumph. The one who had made them look foolish in front of the crowds, the one who had exposed their hypocrisy—well this was the time when He was going to pay the price. And they relished every single second of it. In their minds they thought, “We’ll get the last laugh!” But it didn’t quite work out that way.
You know, I wonder sometimes if we don’t see Christ’s love displayed as much by the people that He tolerated as in the pain He endured.
II. A PLACE OF SACRIFICE.
Golgotha was a place of suffering. But on that day it was also a place of sacrifice.
Now those two words—suffering and sacrifice—are kind of foreign to the vocabulary of many in our culture today, aren’t they?
Suffering and sacrifice?! We have a difficult time with those two words. We attempt to avoid them at all costs. Some of you probably feel like you have suffered and sacrificed in just being here this morning! When so many around the world look forward to Sunday morning as a day to sleep in, you disciplined yourself to get up and go to church!
When we watch someone on TV—an Alysa Liu for example—perform a flawless figure skating program, we look at her and say, “Boy, I wish I could do that. I wish I could win a gold medal in the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships!” But do you know what we don’t see? We don’t see the countless hours of suffering and sacrifice that she put in in order to get to that point.
When we watch someone like Markus Howard, or Zion Williamson, or Admiral Schofield play basketball, we say, “Boy, I wish I could play like that. I would give anything to be in an NCAA tournament game!” But you know what we don’t see? We don’t see those guys after practice is officially over still on the floor, shooting hundreds of free throws. We don’t see them running the wind sprints. We don’t see them staying up late, trying to catch up on all the classes they have missed as a result of being out of town so much. We all want to play like that, but very few of us would be willing to sacrifice the time and effort. Remember that old phrase that says, “No pain, no gain”?
Or you see somebody walking around who is really well built, and you say, “Boy, I wish my body looked like that.” I mean, I will see some guy who looks like he’s chiseled out of stone, a guy who has muscles in places that I don’t even have places, and I’ll say, “Boy, I wish I could look a little like that.” But no pain, no gain. People who are on the fitness kick do that in order to look their best. Everybody seems to be doing that these days. But it takes suffering and sacrifice.
Well there are four reason why I think Jesus was willing to be that sacrifice.
We look at that cross and we say, “Man, why didn’t He come down from there?” Well I can give you at least four good reasons.
First, and very simply, it was because of love.
One commentator writes: “Nails don’t hold Gods to trees, but love does.” And on that day, love did.
The second reason I think Jesus didn’t come down was because of knowledge.
They said, “If you come down, then we will believe in you” (v. 42). Now that sounds pretty good on the surface, doesn’t it? I can see somebody saying that. But on closer examination Jesus knew in His infinite wisdom that at that point their hearts were too hardened to even be open to change. He could prove more by facing death humbly than He ever could by saving His own life. I mean, if they were not convinced by the fact of a virgin birth, if they weren’t convinced at the feeding of the 5,000 or the raising of Lazarus from the dead, if they weren’t convinced by the fact that He could walk on water, if they weren’t convinced by the fact that just the night before He had healed a man whose ear had been cut off, then I really don’t think that they would have changed their tune if He simply caused three nails to disintegrate. You see, Jesus, in His knowledge, knew that it was best to stay there on the cross.
So, love was a part of it. Knowledge was a part of it.
But the third reason He stayed there was because of forgiveness of sins.
He knew there was no other way for mankind to be redeemed. That was the only way it could ever happen. The cross was not a change in plans, it was not a last-ditch effort, it was no accident, it was planned from the very beginning.
In Acts 2:23, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached to the crowds, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”
And the fourth reason He stayed there was because of one simple word—prophecy.
You see, for hundreds of years the prophets of God back in the Old Testament had foretold how the coming Messiah would die. And if Jesus were to take the easy way out and come down from that cross, then all those prophecies would go right out the window, thus weakening all the evidence proving the deity of Jesus Christ.
Now we look at a situation like this and we say, “Okay, but what does all this have to do with me?” Well it has everything to do with us. You see, the only way we can experience the forgiveness of our sins and reap the benefits is if we realize that we were there at Golgotha as well. Oh, maybe not literally physically, but rest assured that we were represented there. We were represented by a truckload of sins—sins which we have committed and sins which we have yet to commit. That truck was backed up and lovingly dumped upon a King nailed to the cross.
The poet writes:
You say it’s hard to understand why Jesus had to die?
You wonder why the Jewish band would cry to crucify?
You’re horrified at the thought that you were standing there,
That your presence was truly bought by Satan’s sinful fare.
You cry aloud, “Well it cannot be that I would crucify!”
But yet, you caused Him agony, God’s Word will testify.
You drove a nail, you pushed a thorn into His flesh so deep,
You pierced His heart with worldly scorn, you caused the Lord to weep.
For you were there, as were the Jews, two thousand years ago,
You share with them the shameful news, you caused His blood to flow.
He died for you, He trod the road of death to set us free;
He paid our price when His blood flowed on lonely Calvary.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? You better believe you were! And I was right there beside you. Martin Luther says, “We carry the nails in our pockets.” Isaiah 53:5 says, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
There is a church out on the West Coast that has an unusual mural painted on the wall of their sanctuary. It’s a painting of the scene of Golgotha. There are the political rulers, the religious leaders, the crowd milling around, and there are the frightened disciples. But what makes the mural so unusual is the fact that the members of the congregation posed for the faces of the crowd in the picture.
You see, Christ’s sacrifice serves as an eternal reminder that God’s love is stronger than any mistake that we could ever make—including the murder of God’s very own Son.
III. A PLACE OF SUPERNATURAL POWER.
But thirdly this morning, I want you to see that Golgotha was also a place of supernatural power.
When Christ died on the cross, there were some miraculous occurrences that took place simultaneous to that event. And these occurrences serve to further validate the fact that Jesus Christ truly was and is the Son of God.
Notice first the miracle of darkness.
In verse 45 we are told, “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land.”
Now that was from noon until 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon. For three hours it was pitch black. One commentator suggests that since Jesus would only answer the crowd’s insults by praying for them, that God answered their insults in such a manner as to fill them with terror. And every minute that it remained dark the more ominous and the more terrified those who observed must have been.
But there was also the miracle of the temple veil being torn in two.
Verse 51 says, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”
Now understand that the temple veil was not some flimsy piece of material. Historians tell us that it was made of a thick, heavy, sturdy material. It served as a barrier between the Holy of Holies and the rest of the temple area. And that is so important for us to understand, because when it was torn in two from top to bottom by God it symbolized that now, all of a sudden, there was going to be a new access to God.
You see, prior to that event the only person who was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies and intercede on behalf of the sins of the people was the High Priest, and that only one time a year. Now, though, according to Hebrews chapter 10, every believer can go directly into God’s presence by the blood of Jesus Christ (v. 19). You don’t need an animal sacrifice, you don’t need a priest, you don’t need a preacher. Jesus Christ is your intercessor. He is your mediator, your High Priest.
Paul writes in Colossians 2:14: “…having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he (Jesus) took it away, nailing it to the cross.”
The third miraculous occurrence was the earthquake.
Verse 51 says that at that very moment “the earth shook and the rocks split.”
And I would bet that the foundations of hell quivered as well! For when the earth shook, it was a stamp of approval. It signified that God was allowing all of this to happen, that He was pouring out His Spirit and pouring out forgiveness.
You see, the darkness caused terror through continuation, but the earthquake caused terror through uncertainty. If you have ever been in an earthquake, then you know that sometimes the scariest time is not at the point of the initial quake, it’s the next few minutes after it occurs that can be the most frightening. Will it strike again? Will there be immediate repetition? And the terror is only multiplied if you are in the midst of total darkness.
The fourth miracle was that of the resurrection of the saints.
Now if there ever was a miracle in all the Bible that is more overlooked and swept under the carpet and forgotten, it would certainly have to be this one. Do you see what takes place there in the 52nd verse? It says, “The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” Now can you imagine that? And verse 53 says, “They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”
Wow! I mean, you talk about an awesome display of God’s power. I mean, this is it! People who had been dead and in the graves for years were now suddenly coming back to life?! You see, Jesus was the firstfruits of the resurrection, He was the first one to come back, but He was only a predecessor for other saints who came back as well.
IV. A PLACE OF SIGNIFICANCE.
Now what does all this mean? What is the significance of this entire picture that we’ve just painted?
Well you can learn an awful lot by watching how a person lives, but I believe you can learn even more by watching how a person dies.
You don’t believe me? Then don’t take my word for it, instead ask a Roman centurion—the person who would have been least likely to give a tribute or testimonial on behalf of Jesus Christ. You think your job is tough? You think you’ve got it hard when you go into work tomorrow morning? Well it’s probably nothing in comparison to this guy. For the Roman centurion, death was a part of his everyday job. It was a large part of his experience. He was surrounded by it. He had seen death in a hundred different ways. And when a person would die, he had seen all sorts of faces. He had seen anger and bitterness. He had been spat upon and cussed out. But never before had he come face to face with a person that looked at him and loved him, one that willingly laid his hand down upon the cross in order to have nails driven through it.
Look at verse 54: “When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’”
Max Lucado writes: “Maybe this is what was running through the centurion’s mind: ‘They mock him as a king, but if he were crazy, they would ignore him. If he had no followers, they would turn him away. If he was nothing to fear, they wouldn’t kill him. You only kill a king if he truly has a kingdom.’”
You see, the significance of the cross is that we are no longer separated from God because of our sins, we are atoned for through the sin sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
He removed our sins and now there are no longer any barriers between us and God.
John writes in 1 John 4:10: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Now we cannot fully understand that, we can’t explain that type of love, but Jesus explains it for us, and He does so months before the cross. We find the explanation way back in John chapter 10, verses 17 and 18. It’s a familiar verse. Jesus says, “I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”
You see, we have heard the story so many times that many of us tend to overlook the fact that Christ’s death was voluntary.
Jesus Christ wasn’t murdered. Jesus Christ was not assassinated. In a technical sense, Jesus Christ was not even killed. Jesus Christ gave himself up. He was not the victim of circumstances, it was no accident, his death was painfully and purposefully planned in advance. And when Jesus is arrested and He stands before Pilate, Jesus won’t respond to him. And do you recall what happens then? Pilate gets right in His face and he says, “Don’t you understand that I have the authority to save you or to crucify you?!”
And Jesus looks back at him and says, “The only way you have any authority is because it’s given you from heaven above.” And what Jesus is in essence saying is, “Pilate, make no mistake about it, you are not taking my life, I am giving my life.” And the significance of the cross is that Jesus could have called 10,000 angels, but He didn’t.
In the Old Testament it was the sheep who died for the shepherd, but in the New Testament it was the Shepherd who died for the sheep.
“For God so loved the world (that’s Bethlehem) that he gave his one and only Son (that’s Calvary), that whoever believes in him (that’s salvation) shall not perish but have everlasting life (that’s eternity)” (John 3:16).
Charles Colson writes: “There have been hundreds and thousands of kings, princes, and presidents, and whenever it comes time for a war the same thing always happens.” Colson says that all those kings, princes, and presidents have one thing in common at that point. And do you know what it is? All of those kings, princes, and presidents send their subjects out to die on their behalf. Then Colson writes: “There is only one King that went out and died on the behalf of His subjects. His name is Jesus Christ.”