It was warm the afternoon I stood at the foot of the hill where Jesus died.
Like every other “holy” patch of real estate in and around Jerusalem, Gordon’s Calvary is simply a best guess for the actual location of the crucifixion. But it does seem to fit the requirements outlined in the Bible. The Jews call it Beth-has-sekilah or “place of stoning,” where early Christian tradition places the martyrdom of Stephen. In other words, this 15-metre rocky precipice just outside the Damascus Gate of the northwest wall of the city was where bad guys were executed. The fact that its jagged shape bears an uncanny resemblance to a skull only heightens the tradition’s believability.
But I wasn’t looking for archaeological proof of anything that day. I was looking for Jesus. What I found altered my perception of Him, not because of what happened there but because of something He said. That particular utterance went unmentioned by three of the four gospel writers. Only Luke, the doctor, bothered to write it down, and I’m so glad he did.
Christians are often instructed to “go to the foot of the cross” to learn about God’s love. We’re invited to gaze up at the dying Saviour to determine our worth, to realise our eternal potential and to find the hope for which we all desperately long. But what if our view changed? What if we were no longer at the foot of the cross looking up, but hanging from it looking down? We’d be seeing what Jesus saw as the life slowly drained from His body that fateful Friday afternoon. Suddenly, the words He managed to move past swollen, bloodied lips take on a whole new meaning, especially the one particular phrase that Luke included in his Gospel.
The view from the cross of Calvary encompassed much more than the jagged hilltop. It included the faces of those who’d come to witness His death, including those who’d put Him there. In His field of vision Jesus could see the busy road leading to and from the Damascus Gate with its surging crowds, the powerful and proud stone walls encircling the city, the tall spires of Jerusalem and the shimmering ramparts of the temple. Beyond flowed the undulating dry, barren hills of Judea, where flocks of sheep occasionally wandered among the rocks and thorns. From Calvary’s hill, there’s much to see when you’re being crucified.
Which brings us to those amazing words found in chapter 23 of Luke’s Gospel. After the good doctor describes in detail the arrest, sham trial and subsequent condemnation of Jesus, his report carries us to “the place called the skull” where Jesus was crucified. And Luke mentions that “two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed” (verses 32, 33).
Now we find Jesus nailed to a Roman cross next to two bad guys, one on either side, each one hanging from his own cross. I’m guessing the efficient Romans decided that so long as the execution squad was up and running that day, they might as well clean out the local lockup’s death row.
That’s when it happened. “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’” (verse 34).
Mockers and murderers
Forgive who? The bad guys? The soldiers still gripping their blood-spattered hammers? The self-absorbed religious rulers who’d arranged to have Jesus put on the cross and were, even at that moment, calling out, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One” (verse 35)? Was He forgiving the disciples who, just the night before, had disowned Him?
Perhaps it was the casual onlookers who couldn’t care less about who was dying outside the city walls and were there simply out of morbid curiosity?
Luke doesn’t say, but the view from the cross included every one of these individuals. Jesus’ vantage point also encompassed the masses of people moving in and out of the city through the Damascus gate, the merchants and their customers filling the busy streets of Jerusalem, the priests going about their solemn duties in the temple and the humble shepherds keeping watch over their flocks among the parched hills of Judea.
I believe that those agonised words, “Father, forgive them,” reveal Jesus’ true character. They highlight a personality trait that proves beyond a doubt that, even while dying a horrible death, His thoughts were not on Himself but on others.
Luke must have come to the conclusion that those particular words would mean something important to future generations of bad guys, including each of us. In that sweeping view from the cross we can surely find ourselves somewhere.
Perhaps our actions have condemned the Saviour all over again. Maybe we’ve disowned Him, calling Him irrelevant for life in the twenty-first century. Our callous ways have been spikes driven through His hands and feet. We’ve rejected Him in public, choosing to be “on-trend” or “woke” instead of sticking to what we know to be right. Even those of us who call ourselves Christians are not exempt: we’ve banned His message of love and forgiveness from our churches, spending precious worship time arguing politics or defending sinful ways using vague, twisted references from the Bible.
For many of us, finding no divine support for our self-centred lifestyle, we simply ignore God’s presence in our lives. We go about our business without a glance in His direction. His sacrifice means nothing.
After all, we have problems of our own to face, and we fail to see how a dying Jewish Rabbi could impact life’s dilemmas.
But, hidden within those dying words, we discover a special brand of hope for all people. Jesus provided an astonishing insight into what motivates God’s forgiving spirit, even when it comes to sinners like us.
The dying Christ cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (verse 34).
If we’ve reached a self-destructive point in our lives because of sin-enhanced ignorance, the full weight of God’s forgiveness is waiting to be applied. We also need to know that Satan has an uncanny way of making wrong seem right and right seem unimportant. Our minds, so saturated with evil, willingly accept the devil’s substitute spirituality, and when that happens, we begin to live out our lives unconcerned and unmotivated by things of true value.
Jesus understood this. When He looked down on the callous Roman soldiers, the angry religious persecutors, the fear-driven disciples and the thoughtless hecklers hurling insults at Him, He understood their total ignorance.
How could He condemn what they were doing when they didn’t understand what they were doing? How could He call down vengeance on people who were under the direct influence of a diabolical power far stronger than they could comprehend? He couldn’t. And He didn’t. Instead, His words recorded by Luke reveal a fathomless love that overlooks actions and offers hope to anyone willing to change allegiance and start living a life motivated by eternal values instead of temporal emotions.
Father, forgive them . . . . Those words still echo today. God’s forgiveness remains readily accessible. It doesn’t matter if, in His view from the cross, we’re represented by the soldiers, the disciples, the crowds of people, the merchants, the spiritual leaders or the man or woman wandering alone among distant, barren hills. It’s time for us to trade ignorance for enlightenment and experience God’s brand of forgiveness and hope.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Simon Peter—a disciple who had disowned Jesus the night of His trial and stood in the shadows of the cross watching his Teacher die. Listen to what Peter wrote to his fellow Christians many years later: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9, 10).
A hill far away
Years ago my father, a missionary, visited that same rugged hilltop. He spoke of standing among the Muslim tombs that now dot the site of Calvary and watching the city of Jerusalem bask in the late afternoon light. He saw the cars and trucks passing below as throngs of people moved in and out of the Damascus Gate. He heard the buses arriving and departing from the station at the foot of the hill. Like me, he allowed the memories of what happened there two thousand years ago to dominate his thoughts.
He told me later that he found himself humming an old hymn. “On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross . . .” Then he suddenly realised that the hill wasn’t far away at all. It was right there under his feet.
The answer is closer than we think. Thanks to those incredible words uttered by Christ at a place called “the skull,” we know that millions—including each one of us—can accept that promised forgiveness and enjoy life eternal because of what Jesus saw from the cross.