It will surely have escaped no reader's attention that we are now less than a week away from Easter, that happiest of all days in the Christian calendar. This is the central celebration of our faith. It's a time when we remember the staggering, unthinkable sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross; when we rejoice at the earth-shattering power that God displayed when he raised him from the dead; when we recognise once more the forgiveness, power and hope that are ours now because of God's wonderful gift. In this celebration, the cross and the empty tomb are both equally important. Without the cross, we could never be cleansed from our sin; without the resurrection, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians, our faith would be useless and we would be miserable!
Yet reading the four gospel-writers' accounts of Jesus' crucifixion this year, I was struck again by how different the cross would have seemed to those watching at the time, without the knowledge of the coming resurrection. The writers are careful to portray the very different reactions of the diverse groups who watched the scene. For the Roman authorities and the chief priests, this was a chance to gloat: a sign saying 'KING OF THE JEWS' sarcastically emphasised their military dominance – a warning of what happened to those who dared challenge the might of Rome. Meanwhile, the chief priests (who had always hated Jesus, for the threat his open grace represented to their dominance of Temple worship) revelled in their supposed vindication, using the mocking accusation that 'he saved others, but he can't save himself!' to drive home the reality as they saw it: a man hanging on a cross, and thus under God's curse (as declared in Deuteronomy 21:23), could never have been God's chosen Messiah.
For the many ordinary people who passed by the cross throughout the day – whether Jesus' disciples or just interested observers – they seemed to be watching their latest Messianic hopes slowly fade away. Some are desperate for a last-minute reprieve, to the extent that they excitedly mishear Jesus' anguished cry Eli, eli, lema sabachthani as an announcement that the prophet Elijah would shortly be coming down from heaven to rescue him! Others seem happy simply to join in with the widespread shouts of derision.
Most striking of all, perhaps, are the total outsiders – the thief on the cross, the Roman centurion observing it – who nonetheless seem to catch a glimpse of Jesus' true nature when all around them have totally missed it. These people look at Jesus with open eyes, free from misleading expectations of a military or Pharisaical Messiah, and they see someone totally unique; even his death points to his godhood.
Reflecting on these very different reactions to the cross, a verse from Proverbs seems strangely relevant: 'many are the plans in a person's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails'. Everyone in this scene has their own agenda, but it all ends up serving God's purposes. Even the sarcastic taunts of the Romans and chief priests end up rebounding to Jesus' glory, as in retrospect they turn out to be absolutely true – Jesus' kingship was rendered unquestionable when he conquered death, and it was because he chose not to save himself that he was able to save others.
As we reflect on the cross, then, we see not just Jesus' ultimate sacrifice, but also his ultimate victory. The forces of evil threw everything they had at him, and God turned their weapons against them; as Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians, at the cross God 'disarmed the powers and authorities, and made a public spectacle of them'. Let's remember that victory this week as we prepare for the wonder of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday.