The Cross—the Expression of Man's Unbelief
Adapted from a Sermon by Horatius Bonar, 1867
But they kept shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Luke 23:21
Crucifixion was the death of the outcast only, the Gentile outcast. Stoning was the Jewish death, crucifying the Gentile death, or rather the Roman death; the death devised and inflicted by the fourth great beast of Daniel, when exercising his power in trampling down the nation of God with his iron feet.
"Crucify him," then, meant, Let him die the worst of deaths—the Gentile death, the death that is so specially connected with the curse; the death that proclaims Him to be not merely an outcast from Israel, an outcast from Jerusalem—but an outcast from the Gentile, an outcast from the human race.
He to whom this cry is directed, is a Gentile ruler; and it is striking to observe the Jew handing over his fellow-Jew to the hated Gentile, the conqueror of his city and nation. With what a hatred must these crucifiers have hated their victim—when they give him over to the Gentile to have their utmost malice executed upon him!
The one against whom they so furiously shout out their bitterness, is the Son of God; not merely a holy man—but one in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells; one who has been sent by the Father to carry out his purpose of love. It is against the Word made flesh, the "only-begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth," (John 1:14 NASB) that the cry is raised, "Crucify him! crucify him! let him die the worst of deaths; not this man—but Barabbas!" It was not his human holiness merely, which excited the hatred and the outcry; it was his divine perfection. It was not merely man hating man because he was better than himself. Here is man hating God--man seeking to rid himself, and rid the world of God altogether. Here is man seizing the opportunity he now had, in having God in a human form within his power--of eliminating Jehovah--as the Being to whose absolute dominion he would not submit, and whose presence on the earth, in human form, was altogether intolerable!
Who were they who raised the cry and made this dreadful demand, in the name of justice and religion, upon a Gentile ruler, for the death of the Son of God?
They were the Jews, the Jews of Jerusalem; not the more ignorant and irreligious Jews of Samaria or Galilee—but the Jews of Jerusalem. More than that, first among these haters of the Messiah were the men who professed most to be looking for his coming; the best educated, most learned, and, according to their ideas—the most devout and religious of the nation.
They were not Egyptians or Persians, or Greeks or Romans, worshipers of false gods; but children of Abraham, men who studied Moses and the prophets, men well-read in the Scriptures, and worshipers of the one Jehovah. They were the choice men of a nation which had been trained up, for well-near two thousand years, in the knowledge of God; with whom God had taken infinite pains—to teach, to guide, to elevate, to preserve from the surrounding falsehoods, and superstitions, and sins.
They were a people that knew more of truth, heavenly truth, than any other on the face of the earth. They were, beyond comparison, the best educated, most enlightened nation on the earth. No blessing had been held back, no miracle withheld, no privilege refused, no cost spared—to make them the nation of nations— religiously, morally, and intellectually, and physically as well. They were, then, the best specimens of the race—the representatives of humanity in its best state—the display of the natural man, brought to the highest point, by knowledge, and law, and government, and religion.
It was to this people that Messiah was proposed, to be received or rejected. If they rejected him, who could be expected to receive him? If they hated him, who could be expected to love him? If they treated him with dishonor, who could be expected to honor him? If the best portion of the race, who had been expressly separated from the rest, and divinely trained, in order to be ready for his coming, refused him—what could be expected of the worst; what could be expected of the race as a whole?
God gave to Israel, and to our race in them, all advantages for receiving his Son. Yet, with all these advantages and privileges, they rejected him! "He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him." (John 1:11) Their cry was not, "Crown him," but "Crucify him!" not, Let the King live forever—but, Let him die the worst of deaths!
It was in this way that man rejected Christ—civilized man, educated man, religious man! It was in this way that the natural heart spoke out, and showed the depths of its hatred and atheism—the extent of its desperate unbelief. Yes, it was the unbelief of the human heart that was manifested itself here, and cried, "Crucify, crucify!"
All unbelief, then, is rejection of the Son of God. Whatever be its evasions, and pretexts, and excuses, and fair pretences, this is its essence—rejection of Jesus Christ. In thousands of cases it does not go so far as the rejection in Pilate's hall; but not the less true is it that such is its true and ultimate form of expression; that all unbelief is tending to such a height, and it would assuredly rise to that, if circumstances allowed it! And that the great reason why, in so many cases, it does not reach this awful height, is, that man is not so directly confronted with the Son of God, face to face, and the natural heart is not so explicitly forced to chose between Christ and Barabbas, nor so immediately and directly called to decide on the reception or rejection of the Son of God.
Were the natural heart, even in its best condition, called upon to speak out, by the demand being made upon it for immediate and unreserved affection and allegiance and obedience to Messiah, it would rise up into the same dreadful attitude of hostility, and manifest its unbelief, in the same terrific outcry for the crucifixion of the Son of God, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!"
And why this desperate rejection; this hatred of man towards Christ? For many reasons; but mainly for this—that God's religion, of which Christ is the beginning and the ending—is so thoroughly opposed to man's religion, or man's ideas of religion, that to accept Jesus of Nazareth would be a total surrender of self, a confession of the utter absence of all human goodness; and an overturning of every religious idea or principle, which the flesh had cherished and rested on!
In such a case, and with such an alternative, it does not seem so incredible that man should resist to the uttermost the claims of Christ upon his faith and his heart. His alternative is, the denial of self—or the denial of Christ; the rejection of his own claims to be his own savior—or the rejection of the claims of Christ; the crucifixion of the flesh—or the crucifixion of Christ.
With such an alternative, what will the natural unbelief of the human heart not resort to; and what but the almighty power of the Holy Spirit can effectually oppose the claims of self, and prevent the most daring rejection of Christ, or turn that rejection into a warm and trustful reception? Nothing else will overcome that unbelief, or turn it into faith and love. Allow unbelief to take its own way, and run its course, and it will end in the crucifixion of the Lord of glory. It will prefer self, the flesh, the devil—the worst of criminals to Christ.
"Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas! " John 18:39-40
It is supposed by many that such a thing as the rejection of Christ could only have occurred among uneducated, uncivilized, lawless, irreligious men. But no.
Education will not hinder the rejection of Christ. They who crucified Him were educated men; not ignorant and brutal.
Civilization will not hinder the rejection of Christ. It was the civilized Roman, and the more civilized Jew, who crucified him. Civilization is a poor defence against the assault of man's natural unbelief.
Law will not hinder the rejection of Christ. The Roman is the representative of man's law, and the Jew of God's; yet both combine to reject Christ's claims, and to crucify him.
Religion will not hinder the rejection of Christ. Christ was crucified by men who had more of what man calls religion than any other on the earth. They prayed, they fasted, they gave alms, they multiplied sacrifices—yet they crucified Christ! It was the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious and respectable men of Israel, who were the leaders in rejecting Messiah.
God's way of dealing with them, as announced by Christ, was so opposed to their ideas of the way in which they ought to be dealt with, that rejection of the claims of Jesus, and hatred of his person, were necessary elements in, or at least indispensable deductions from, their religion. How often among ourselves, does a man's religion, or religiousness, or ritualism, form the great hindrance to his reception of the gospel! It is not Christ that is his religion; it is his religion that is his Christ! This being the case, Christ cannot be prized, or loved, or trusted in; he can only be rejected, hated, crucified.
This rejection of Christ showed itself in various aspects, in the different characters and events described by the evangelists, in this last scene in Jerusalem. In all of them, however, it is unbelief that is showing itself—the same unbelief which still induces opposition to Christ, the same unbelief which often keeps an anxious sinner so long in darkness and distrust. And, as we judge of the real nature of a thing best, when it is fully developed and carried out—so we learn the true nature of all unbelief, from the modes in which it expressed itself at this great scene of rejection, enacting itself out at Jerusalem, from the hour that Judas sold his Master, up to the moment when the thief reproached him from the cross.
Look at Judas then—there is unbelief. The traitor is neither more nor less than an unbelieving man carrying out his unbelief in betrayal of his Lord. His is the unbelief that treats Christ as a piece of merchandise, bought and sold between man and man! And do you see, unbelieving man, that you are Judas, you are the traitor; for all unbelief is betrayal of the Lord!
Look at the disciples; "they all left him and fled." (Mark 14:50) Professing to love him, they treated him as one unworthy to be suffered for. That act of forsaking was the unbelief even of the converted man, coming out and showing itself again. We see it especially in Peter. In him there is open denial, and in that denial we see the old heart of unbelief again speaking out. Every backslider must remember this, that all unbelief is a forsaking of the Lord, a denial of the Master. Say what you will, this is your crime. You who think you are not so bad as Peter. The difference is only in degree, and hardly even that.
Look at Herod; he mocks Jesus, and counts him as nothing. Here is another phase of unbelief. See unbelieving man, you are Herod; you and your companions are Herod with his men of war; for all unbelief is mockery of the Lord. You say you never mocked him; yet your unbelief, if unfolded, would make you a Herod.
Look at the Soldiers; they scourge and strike him. There again is the natural heart acting itself out. These indignities and wounds, are just another expression of man's hostility. Realize, unbelieving man, you are the executioner; for all unbelief is a striking and scourging of the Son of God!
Look at the Scribes and Pharisees, the Jewish crowds that demand his execution, and shout, "Crucify him! crucify him!" There is the evil heart of unbelief giving vent to itself. These crowds are fair examples of the race; they are no worse than you are, unbelieving man. In like circumstances, you would have said and done the same; for all unbelief is a crucifixion of the Son of God. You are the Scribe, you are the Pharisee, you are the clamouring Jew; it is the voice of your unbelief which cries, "Crucify him! let him die the death, let him die the worst of deaths!"
Look at the thief that is nailed beside him; he reproaches him there. Surely one would expect unbelief might have been silent in such circumstances! Yet no; even on the cross it reviles. Unbelieving man, you are the one who reproaches the Son of God.
Look at the crowd around the cross; they shake their head, and taunt, and jest. It is still but man's natural unbelief that is speaking out. Unbelieving man, you are the taunter, you are the one who makes fun of, you are the mocker—of Jesus of Nazareth.
Look at the soldier who pierces his side, after he has breathed his last. He is determined to make sure of his death. Unbelief will not bear the thought that there should be the very chance of life left. Unbelieving man, you are the soldier—it is your spear that is drawing out the blood and water; it is your unbelief that not only says, Let him die the death; but, let us make sure of his death; let there be no mistake as to this.
Learn, then, the true nature of all unbelief; its deceitfulness and desperate maliciousness; its rooted hostility to Christ and to his claims upon man; its determination to be satisfied with nothing but his death; its resolute rejection of his person, and work, and grace; its natural and unchangeable watchword, " Not this man, but Barabbas!" (John 18:40) "Crucify him! crucify him!"
Nor has this unbelief anything to say for itself. It cannot be accounted for by anything in the object of its hatred. "They hated me without a cause." (John 15:25). "So they reward me ... hatred for my love." (Psalm 109:5). This is the plain statement of the fact. The object hated, was most loveable, most trustworthy, most glorious; but man would have none of it. Here was the Being who, of all others, was most fitted to call up love and trust; for here was the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth; here was the embodiment of divine love and loveableness—but God's love is met with man's hatred; the most definitive revelation of divine love, calls forth the most fearful utterance of human hatred and unbelief!
Natural man! Can that heart of yours be anything but evil, which deals in this way with God and his love? Can that unbelief of yours be dismissed as a little thing? Can it be anything but the most resolute and guilty hostility; hostility which, though it may often lie dormant for a season, yet which, the moment it awakes and recovers strength, breaks forth in mockery against the Son of God, and demands his instant condemnation and crucifixion, "Crucify him! crucify him!" Recognize it! Be ashamed of it! Abhor it! Cast it utterly away!
When Christ comes again in his glory, how will unbelief appear? It will be seen to be rejection of the Son of God—rejection the same as Israel's. You will be of “those who pierced him." (Rev 1:7) All who distrust, all who stand unresponsive—will be seen in their proper character. Your unbelief brings you among those “who do not obey the gospel," (2 Thess 1:8) and that brings you under the rod of him who comes to take vengeance upon such!
Christ may come soon; but, whether or not he does—let the thought of that great day drive you to immediate faith, immediate reception of Him whom Israel crucified!