The Sayings from the Cross, 4
Tony Renshaw, Heald Green, Cheshire
We conclude with John's crucifixion narrative, which includes four of the eight sayings from the cross; see 19. 23-30. He omits the two prayers which the Lord uttered at the beginning and the end of His ordeal, and also the word to the repentant thief, all of which Luke records. He omits also the cry of dereliction which both Matthew and Mark record. The four sayings which John records are noticeably briefer than the four that he omits, and they are all intensely human. This bears consideration. Of the four Gospels, John's deals preeminently with the Saviour's deity; yet in describing the Lord's closing hours on earth he gives us these touching glimpses of his human sufferings.
1. The Thoughtful Man. "When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved", v. 26. He read the depths of grief and desolation in His mother's face and heart. We should remember that for some thirty years Mary had been a constant factor in his life, having given birth to Him and reared Him through infancy and boyhood, and having cared for Him throughout the later years of youth and early manhood. When she had brought Joseph's children into the world, the Lord Jesus had shouldered increasing responsibility in the humble home at Nazareth. If we are right in thinking that Joseph's disappearance from the gospel narratives indicates that Mary was widowed whilst still comparatively young, the Lord must have become the main provider for her needs and those of her children. What a close and tender relationship theirs had been!
Of Mary's deep piety and spirituality we need have no doubt. She had found favour with God as a holy young woman, and was uniquely privileged to become the Lord's mother. Her song of praise in the home of Elizabeth reveals her love for God and His Word. Throughout the hidden years in Nazareth, she had watched Jesus growing in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. When He embarked on His public ministry, Mary inevitably lost Him from the home, and saw much less of Him. Her conduct at Cana's wedding reveals her intuitive insight into His thoughts and outlook to a degree rarely acknowledged. He had performed no miracle up to that moment, yet Mary sensed that He was going to act, and that He would involve the servants in a way which they would find so surprising that she felt it necessary to prepare them for an unexpected instruction; and she was right!
The synoptic Gospels all record an occasion later when Mary and the Lord's brothers sought to contact Him whilst He was teaching, Matt. 12. 46ff; Mark 3. 31ff; Luke 8. 19ff. A message was brought to Him, "Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee", but the Lord's reply was, "Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father . . . the same is my brother, and sister, and mother". By these words the Lord clearly taught that He would not allow a natural family relationship to claim priority over a spiritual one.
After that incident, the Gospels record no further occasion when Mary had contact with the Lord. It would be going too far to insist that they never met again before the crucifixion, but such meetings (if they occurred at all) were probably few and, for the gospel writers at least, of no special significance. But now this devoted mother and godly lady stands by the cross of Jesus. For any mother of any son this would have involved unspeakable grief, but for this mother of this Son it must have been heart-rending far beyond description. Pierced as she was by the sharpest pain and sorrow, she stood speechless by that cross, gazing upon Him who was dear to her beyond all telling. And what could He do for her now? With great economy of words John writes, "When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son", ("Dear lady, behold your son", Amplified N.T., where the footnote says it was "a term of endearment and respect").
Speech was doubtless appallingly difficult, and these words were few. But how much they conveyed! He knew the dreadful void which His going would leave, and it is as though He says to her, "Look away from me now, my dear, and take a new son into your heart, one whom I can trust to help you to bear this grief and to weather this storm".
2. The Trusting Man. "Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home", John 19. 27. Here the Saviour shows His confidence in the beloved disciple. He knew that this brief word of commitment was sufficient to secure John's willing care for Mary in the days that lay ahead. It is noteworthy that the Lord spoke to Mary first, then to John. He did not feel it necessary to consult John first in making these arrangements. He knew that no prior discussion was necessary. He trusted him.
It is interesting to reflect that John's own mother was not far away at this time. "And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's children", Matt. 27. 55-56. John's mother was clearly a devoted follower of Jesus, and it is self-evident that she would be only too willing to share her son with the Lord's mother for as long as would be necessary.
We should also remember that the Lord's mother still had sons of her own alive at this time, but the evidence of the New Testament suggests that they continued in the unbelief of which we read in John 7. 5 until after the resurrection. The Lord therefore preferred to commit His mother into the care of His beloved disciple, knowing that the continuing unbelief of Mary's sons would have added further sorrow to the grief that she was already sustaining. It is a joy, however, to discover that the Lord's brothers must have become believers soon after the resurrection, for in Acts 1. 13-14 we find that, when the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the mount of Olives where they had witnessed the Lord's ascension, "they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter and James and John . . . These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren". We may well feel, therefore, that Mary probably spent her closing days on earth in the care of her own sons, whilst maintaining close links with John and the other leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
3. The Thirsty Man. "After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst", John 19. 28, The phrase "knowing that all things were now accomplished" strongly suggests that the period of darkness and dereliction, to which the other evangelists refer, was now ended. The words also balance similar words recorded earlier in John's narrative, referring to the time when Judas Iscariot brought the Lord's enemies into Gethsemane, "Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them. Whom seek ye?", 18. 4. How intensely solemn to learn that, as the Lord stood on the brink of the dreadful sufferings which lay before Him, He knew everything about them in advance. But now at last, everything was accomplished, and a final scripture awaited fulfilment. This was Psalm 69. 21, "They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink". In order that men might fulfil that remaining detail, the Lord said "I thirst". The awful intensity of that thirst is mentioned earlier in Psalm 69. 3, "I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God". The graphic words of a similarly prophetic psalm convey the same thought, "My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death", 22. 15.
It is striking to see that the Lord's first recorded act towards men in this Gospel is that He gave them wine to drink, whilst men's last recorded act towards the Lord was that they gave Him vinegar to drink. The vessels full of water which became wine at Cana tell out the fulness of divine love, whilst the vessel full of vinegar at Golgotha tells out the fulness of human hatred. He had refused the stupefying draught referred to in Matthew 27. 34, but He received the vinegar.
4. The Triumphant Man. "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost", John 19. 30. The word here rendered "finished'1'' is the same used in verse 28, "accomplished". W. E. Vine quotes a writer, who commented that "the word was in his heart before He uttered it". The word has other shades of meaning as its use in other New Testament passages makes clear, "And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee", Luke 2. 39; "And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute?", Matt. 17. 24. The words performed and pay translate the same Greek word rendered finished and accomplished in John 19. The work was finished, the task was performed, the mission was accomplished, and the price was paid. The Lord's words certainly indicate relief that His mighty undertaking was thoroughly completed, and joy that at last His moment of departure had arrived. Now He was ready to go to paradise, where the repentant thief would join Him very soon.