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Have you ever noticed that as soon as Jesus’s Cross was dropped into place it began dividing people? St. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians 1. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God… Christ crucified [is] a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others, but the power of God and the wisdom of God to those whom he has called (1 Cor. 1:18ff).
See how it works. Here are soldiers. They took this duty because they enjoyed the perks: it was easy work once the cross was up, plus they were allowed to divide up the victim’s possessions among themselves. Jesus didn’t have much, just the five articles of clothing that every Jewish man wore: the inner tunic, the outer robe, the belt or sash, the sandals, and the turban. The four soldiers took one piece of clothing each, but the beautiful, seamless robe was still left. To cut it up into four pieces would have been to ruin it, so here they were, at the foot of the cross, gambling for it. From their perspective, Jesus was a means to financial gain. Jesus is still that to many people, as the TV preachers continually remind us.
But the cross divides people. On the other side of the cross was a Roman centurion, these soldiers’ superior. He was a hard-bitten man who had fought tough battles and seen many men die. But he had never seen anyone die like this. Jesus once predicted, “If I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32), and here we have the first example of the magnetism of the cross. The Centurion was being drawn. While his soldiers were gambling and mocking, he was rapt with wonder, and praised God: “Surely this was a righteous man” (verse 47). Mark tells us that he went even further: “This man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
Also standing below the cross are Jewish religious leaders. Of all people on earth, they should have recognized their messiah and welcomed him. They should have sworn allegiance to him. Instead, they swore at him, and mocked him. Verse 35: “…the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, the chosen one.’” There are still those who have no place for a dying Savior, people who understand only power, pragmatism, manipulation.
Divided from these rulers was another ruler, and the crucified Christ separated them. His name was Joseph (vs. 50). He was a member of the ruling counsel, just like the men who stood below the cross and sneered. But the cross had sundered them. They saw a helpless man. He saw the mighty love of God.
On either side of Jesus, verse 33, was a criminal. The one hurled insults at him. He despised this good man who suffered for nothing. In his eyes Jesus was a weakling, someone to scoff at. “At least,” the criminal might have thought, “I have done something worth dying for. At least I have been a man.” But he saw nothing in Jesus that he wanted.
But the criminal on the other side of Jesus had been watching him. He heard him say, “Father, forgive them.” He saw him bless instead of curse. He saw something in Jesus that transcended the moment, something so powerful that he blurted out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”They both saw the same Jesus: bloody, beaten almost beyond recognition, affixed to a cross. But the one man saw a loser while the other saw a king.
The cross divides people. God has plunged it into the earth, like Excaliber in the stone, and no power can remove it. From the moment it was driven into the ground, it began splitting the earth, dividing people. Some who look on the crucified Christ see nothing they want, nothing that draws them, nothing to love. Others are drawn to the cross and to Christ and to life.
What can we say to this? If you have been putting off the moment of decision, have not yet chose to believe on Jesus and give your life to follow him, know this: Sooner or later, you will have to take your stand on one side of the cross or the other. On the side with those who say, “There’s nothing here I want” or with those who, like Thomas, say “My Lord and my God.” The earth is splitting under your feet, and you must stand on one side or the other. If in your heart you know the side on which to stand, do it today. Don’t wait. Bow to Christ, offer him your life and your heart. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” says St. Paul, “and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). He took your place as truly as he took Barabbas’. Because of him, a new future, a better future, is being offered to you. Don’t let it pass you by.
If you already belong to Jesus, understand this: the cross is proof positive that God is in control. While it’s true that corrupt leaders and Roman soldiers put Jesus “to death by nailing him to the cross,” it is also true, as St. Peter said, that he “was handed over to [them] by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23ff.) Do you see what that means? God took the most wicked deed ever done by humans and turned it into the greatest good. Nothing can stop our God. Nothing. He will bring good.
Simon from Cyrene is a marvelous example. He may have said to himself, “Why me?” He may have said to God, “What have I done to deserve this?” He may have hated the Romans for the way they treated him. And yet it is likely that God used the worst thing that ever happened to him to bring he and his family to faith and to life. Even when you don’t understand, even when God seems to be far off, even when bad things happen, don’t stop trusting him. Our God reigns. He will bring good. Nothing can stop him.