Were ever four words written, burdened with a heavier load of momentous significance than these?
Each one of them carries its own load of human shame and divine glory, of human enmity of God and divine love, of human hopelessness and divine redemption.
They crucified Him; that means that we sealed our own and the whole world’s condemnation. They crucified Him: that signifies that we utterly put Him to naught, despised, and rejected Him; but also that He bore the curse for us, in order that we might never be accursed. Him they crucified: and that reveals that we were filled with a deeply rooted enmity against the living God; but also that God loved us, and that, too, at the very moment when we were yet sinners and hated Him. And it was there, on Calvary, outside of the gate, that this drama of furious hatred on the part of man and of amazing, unquenchable divine love, was enacted: and that means that Christ offered Himself a sacrifice for our sins, sprinkling His blood upon the mercy seat in the inner sanctuary, but also, that we must go out to Him outside of the camp, bearing His reproach.
Let us contemplate these various aspects of the crucifixion somewhat in detail, as we stand on Calvary and “watch him there.”
They crucified Him!
Two questions clamor for an answer. Why did they commit this deed? And who were they that crucified Him?
As to the first question, there can be but one answer: they nailed Him to the tree because of what He is. He is the Son of God, the only Begotten of the Father, God of God and Light of Light. And this Son of God, by whom also the worlds were made, came as near to us as possible when He assumed our flesh and blood, and appeared in the form of a man. He entered into our world, walked among us in the likeness of sinful flesh, lived our life, spoke our language, and became like unto us in all things, sin excepted. All the thirty-three years of His earthly sojourn, but especially during the three years of His public ministry, He revealed the Father, in the words He spoke, in the works He performed, yea, in His entire person. Always He stood for the cause of God’s righteousness, of His glory and of His everlasting covenant. In the midst of a world of sin and darkness He never drew back. With the unfruitful works of darkness He never compromised. Always He revealed Himself as the light, and there was no darkness in Him at all. In Him God was manifested in the flesh.
This is the deep reason why the world hated Him.
For men were and are by nature enemies of God. They love the darkness and hate the light.
Oh, do not object that they knew not that He was the Son of God, that His glory was hid completely behind the form of a mere man, and that, if He had only been manifest in His divine glory, they would never have laid hands on Him. For this does not alter the case whatever. For although it stands to reason that they would never have ventured or been able to lay their vile hands on Him and to nail Him to the cross had He been revealed in the naked glory and majesty of His divinity, the fact remains that His entire sojourn among us was one clear and glorious revelation of God in His righteousness and holiness, His justice and truth, His love and mercy, and His power to save. God’s representative He was. As the Son of God in the flesh, He was manifest to all, through His words of eternal life and through His mighty works. The sinless among sinners He was, and the sinners hated Him. The light shining in the darkness He was, and the darkness would have none of Him. The Son of God tabernacling among men He was, and men, although they did not express it in those very words, said, in effect: “This is the Son. Let us kill Him!”
They crucified Him. And that means that their hatred knew no bounds. Oh, always they had despised and rejected Him! The more clearly He became manifest as the revelation of the Father, as the light of the world that would never condone the darkness, as the Son of God that absolutely refused to compromise with the cause of mere Man, the more they found Him intolerable, and hated Him with a bitter hatred. Always they opposed Him, contradicted Him, reviled Him, accused Him of standing in alliance with Beelzebub, marked Him as a deceiver and blasphemer. And frequently they sought to lay hands on Him and cast Him out of their world. But the cross was the climax, the ultimate revelation of their insatiable hatred. By the crucifixion they expressed that they considered Him a worthless fellow, to be numbered with the worst of criminals, accursed of men, utterly unfit to occupy a place in human society. Thus they revealed that the carnal mind is enmity against God, implacable, incurable, furious, bent upon the obliteration of His very name from the face of the earth.
But who were these men that so crucified Him?
Were they, perhaps, bloodthirsty savages, uneducated cannibals, uncivilized heathen? Were they men from the lowest ranks of society, unscrupulous criminals, the scum of mankind, upon whom we may well look with disdain?
On the contrary, they were men that represented the world at its best. Literally every conceivable class of men was represented. Oh, when the Gospel record has it that “they crucified him,” the reference is, perhaps literally to the soldiers that spiked Him to the tree. But after all, these were only the agents. Behind them stood the representative of the Roman world-power, proud of its culture and civilization, famous for its knowledge and development of human jurisprudence, represented by Pontius Pilate. And back of this world-power stood the religious world, that is, mere men, natural men, as they had come into contact with the outward revelation of the word of God, the law and the prophets. There were the scribes and the lawyers, the theologians of that time, who made it their business to discover what is the will of God; the Pharisees, who were renowned as men that walked in all the external righteousness of the law; and the priests, headed by the high priest, who functioned in the sanctuary made with hands. And there was even one of the inner circle of Jesus’ closest associates, who had heard His words, and been witness of His mighty works for three years, who even had been sent out to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom, to heal the sick and to cast out devils in His name, but who assumed the despicable role of betraying the Master into the hands of the enemy.
What does it mean?
It signifies that you cannot explain this most atrocious sin of the crucifixion from lack of culture, civilization, education, religious influence; or from a difference in social standing, or in character.
It means that the crucifixion of our Lord is the revelation of something that is universal, that is common to all men, as mere men, apart from grace. And that is sin, enmity against God. It means that you and I, as mere men, crucified Him. It means that all our modern praise of the man Jesus, all our pretended goodness, and willingness to follow His example, all our religiousness, as long as it is nothing else than our religiousness and goodness, is pure sham, camouflage, deceit, hypocrisy. It means that if the Lord sojourned among us today, and walked the streets of our civilized world, we, mere men, no matter what our station may be in life, no matter how beautiful may be the polish and glamor of our culture, would no more give Him a place, and tolerate Him, than did the mere men of His day. We certainly would crucify Him! They crucified Him. That means: mere men crucified Him. And that means: mere men always crucify the Son of God in the flesh. Let us bow our heads in shame as we stand on Calvary and watch Him there. And let us confess that the cross of the Son of God is our greatest condemnation! But even this confession would be impossible for us to make, were it not for the power of that very cross. And that cross would not have that power, if it were nothing more than the expression of man’s implacable hatred of God; if it were not also, at the same time, and above all, the highest revelation of God’s all-enduring, sovereign, victorious love, through which He gave His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Thanks be to God, however, the cross is not only man’s cross but also the cross of God!
For consider now that it is He, the Son of God, whom they crucified!
But how could they? How could they possibly lay hands on the Son of God, even as He appeared in the likeness of sinful flesh?
The answer is: only because, in perfect obedience of love to the Father, and in love to His brethren, He voluntarily surrendered Himself into the hands of sinners, willingly suffered all the reproach and shame that was heaped upon Him, gave His blessed body to be nailed to the cross, and by His own will remained on the accursed tree even to the bitter end. And what else does this mean than that the Father sent His Son into the world that He might bear our sins, satisfy the justice of God with respect to our iniquities, atone for our transgressions, and obtain for us righteousness and eternal life? O, indeed, it was they that crucified Him! Yes, but only because He was delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God could they lay their wicked hands on Him. They crucified Him! Indeed, but they could accomplish this most heinous sin only because God gave His Son, the Son gave Himself, the Spirit sanctified Him to bring the perfect sacrifice for our transgressions. They crucified Him! O, but considered in the light of God’s revelation this means that He took the cross upon Himself, and with the cross the curse of God’s wrath against our sins, the curse under which we must needs perish everlastingly, and that He, by bearing that curse in perfect obedience of love to the Father, removed the guilt of our sins. Through the darkest night of our corruption and enmity against Him, it pleased God to penetrate with the most glorious light of His wondrous love.
That is the paradox of the cross, and at the same time its power of salvation!
Let us put all our imaginary righteousness away, in order to put all our confidence in the righteousness of God through Jesus Christ and Him crucified!
There they crucified Him. . . .
Herman Hoeksema, When I Survey. (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1977), 359-63.