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The Comedy of the Cross
The Crucified King
The Comedy of the Cross
Luke 23:33-39
 
During the next few weeks leading up to Easter, I want us to travel to the cross by way of the Gospel of Luke.  We will begin at verse 33 and make our way to verse 49, and while studying through these verses we will concentrate on “The Crucifixion of the King”.
 
This morning we will begin with verses 33-39. 
 
I want to draw to your attention this morning to the Comedy of the Cross.  Obviously I have some explaining to do concerning the title of this message. 
 
No doubt when you looked down at the bulletin today and you saw, “The Comedy of the Cross,” you were stunned by that.  It is a shocking idea.  It is an irreverent notion.  In fact, it is on the surface cruel and could well be considered blasphemous to think of Calvary as a comedy.  And certainly you have never thought of it as such. 
 
In fact, if you know anything at all about what happened there, you think of its horror and cruelty and agony.  No one would ever think of it as a comedy, nor should we.  And I don’t think of it as a comedy either. 
 
But the truth of the matter is that for most of those who participated in it when it happened, that’s exactly what it was.    
 
 
To describe comedy we might use words like satire or parody.  Or you might just call it a joke.  And for most of those involved in the crucifixion events, that’s how they viewed the whole thing. It was nothing more than a joke.  In their view it was a comedy and Jesus was the butt of the joke.   
 
 
His ridicule would include a crown.  Not a gold crown, but a crown of thorns, digging into His brow, sending blood streaming down His face. Earlier when He was in Pilate’s Judgment Hall, they had put a mock royal robe on Him and they had put a reed in His hand, a royal scepter, and they had hailed Him as a king and then taken the reed and beat Him in the head with it and spit on Him to show their disdain for the notion that this was a king. 
 
To add to the humor, they will crucify one thief on the right and one on the left.  This is to parody a king who has on his right and his left his two leading courtiers, the second and the third most honorable people in the court.  And then they offer Him mock royal wine as if doing their duty to serve the need of the monarch. 
 
Then as the final punch line, someone came up with the idea of a sign with the title, “This is the King of the Jews”.  What a laugh!  This was perhaps the most laughable part of the entire thing.   
 
We can hear it in the responses of the Jews who reject Christ and the Roman soldiers who handle the details of the crucifixion. 
 
Luke uses words like scorn and sneering and mockery to describe laughing at Jesus.  Those three words define for us the attitude of the crowd, both the Jews and the Romans. 
 
 “He saved others, can’t He save Himself?”
“Since You are the Son of God, save Yourself and us.”
“You are the Christ, aren’t You? Save Yourself and us.” 
 
Each of those remarks was intended as sarcasm at this laughable claim He was a king.  What a joke!
 
The Jews certainly laughed at it.  The cross to them, Paul says, was a stumbling block.  There was no way that their Messiah, that the Son of God would ever be crucified.  It was a joke to think of Him as their King, their Messiah, a crucified man, crucified by their archenemies, the pagan, idolatrous Romans. 
 
They couldn’t comprehend that their Messiah would be crucified.  He was to come as a conqueror, not one conquered.  And especially that He would be crucified by being rejected by the leaders of Israel and then executed by pagan, idolatrous Romans.  This is not their Messiah.  This is an agent from Satan who does what He does by the power of Satan.  And He died a common death, like tens of thousands of other low-life riff-raff common criminals.  That’s for whom crucifixion is reserved. 
 
In fact, for the Jews, His crucifixion sealed the fact that He was not the Messiah because Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree,” cursed by God. 
 
Anyone who was crucified was treated with contempt and disdain because God had removed His blessing from that person.  So when they came to the cross, typically they came to the cross with scorn and the idea that Jesus claimed to be God’s anointed King and Messiah was just so laughable, so ludicrous and so ridiculous that they managed to turn the whole thing into a comic melodrama.  For them a man like Jesus claiming to be a king only demonstrated that He belonged in an asylum for the insane.
Jesus, the Messiah?  What a joke!
 
It was equally ludicrous for the Romans to view a man like this as a king.  He claimed to be a king, He had no army.  He claimed to be a king, He had no entourage.  He claimed to be a king, He had no territory.  He claimed to be a king, He conquered no one ever.  What a joke.
 
In fact, the joke still lingers. Visit Rome today and go to what was once a guard house for Roman soldiers near Paletine Hill, and in that guard house there is some ancient graffiti that goes back to the early centuries. 
 
Among those graffiti pictures scraped into the stone, is the likeness of a crucified man with the head of a donkey and below the crucified man is a Christian bowing down and the graffiti says, “Alexamenos worships his god.” 
 
What a joke!  A crucified god!  It’s nothing more than worshiping a jackass.
 
Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist, wrote in A.D. 152, “They say our madness consists in this, that we give to a crucified man a place equal to the unchangeable and eternal Creator God.”
 
So if you think a crucified man is the eternal creator God, you are a fool and that is a joke.  It was sheer insanity to the murderers of Jesus to consider Him any different than others who were crucified.  It was all just one big comedy. 
 
But as you and I know, this is not a time for laughter.  Back up to verse 27, and you find a great multitude of the people following Jesus as He makes His way to Calvary.  Among them are women who are mourning and lamenting Him.  They are, most likely, the official hired mourners who went along at an event like this.  Notice what Jesus says to them.
 
verse 28
 
This is not only not a time to laugh, but a time for weeping.  And Jesus says it is not weeping for him but weeping for themselves because they have rejected Him and God has rejected them.  They needed to travel with Him to the cross with the right attitude instead of laughing at what was happening.
  
So by the time we arrive at verse 33, Jesus had already been stripped of His freedom, stripped of His rights, stripped of His friends and stripped of His ministry.  He has now been stripped of His clothing, down to a loin cloth and they are about to strip Him of His life.
 
Notice verse 33
 
I don’t need to tell you that the New Testament is extremely restrained in how it describes the crucifixion of Jesus.  In fact, only three Greek words, four words in English, are used: “There they crucified Him”.
That’s all it says in Matthew, that’s all it says in Mark, that’s all it says in Luke and that’s all it says in John.  There are no details at all.  There is nothing about the hammers or nails or about anything physical.  Just three words, “There they crucified Him.”
 
Why is there not a further explanation of what this involved?  Because to all the readers at the time the New Testament was written, they knew well what it was to be crucified.  Crucifixion was common.  We’re told as many as thirty thousand people were crucified in the land of Israel around the time of Christ.
 
The Romans always crucified them in public places along highways and on hills so that everybody would see the results of rebellion against Rome.  Since they were well aware of what a crucifixion involved, there was no need to describe it.
 
And there’s no need for the Bible writer to describe Jesus and the actual crucifixion that He endured because it would have been exactly the same as everybody else endured. 
 
In fact, we are told, “There they crucified Him and the criminals.”  So whatever they did to them, they did to Him.  The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is not a unique, solitary experience for Him.  There were tens of thousands of people who were crucified in the ancient world till it was finally outlawed in the third or fourth century A.D.
 
 
 
And in one way or another, it was the same for all of them.  So the Bible does not concern itself with the physical details of it.  It was very familiar to everyone, and besides, that’s not the point. 
 
Crucifixion actually dates back to the sixth century B.C.  It seems to have been thought up by the Persians.  The first time it occurs in historical writings is to record the crucifixion of 3,000 Babylonians by King Darius. 
 
Alexander the Great in the great Greek Empire crucified two thousand citizens of the city of Tyre in vengeance over the way they treated him and put them up on crosses along the shore for everyone to see. 
 
Around 100 B.C., Alexander Jannaeus  crucified eight hundred Pharisees and made their wives and children watch them be crucified. 
 
The Romans came to power in 63 B.C. and used crucifixion extensively and perfected it as a fine art of torture. 
 
By 70 A.D. when the Romans conquered Israel and destroyed the Temple and slaughtered the Jews, historians say that Titus used so many crosses to crucify Jews, they ran out of lumber. 
 
So crucifixion was very common.  Nobody had to explain it or provide the details of what had happened.   Therefore, we are provided very limited details about the crucifixion of Jesus.  And even what we are provided is somewhat vague. 
 
For instance, we are told in verse 33 they “came to the place called ‘The Skull.’” We don’t know where that place is.  There is a traditional site and there is a more contemporary site, and there is much discussion about whether it’s one or the other or perhaps another site.  But we don’t know. 
 
Nothing in the New Testament says it was a hill.  We do know it was traditionally the Roman way to crucify people in an elevated place so that people could see them.  They wanted to make their point.  So we assume it was some kind of a high ground and it was called The Skull perhaps because it had some kind of configuration that represented or resembled a skull.  That’s all we know. 
 
We do know it was called The Skull, Golgotha in Aramaic or Hebrew, Calvaria in Latin, or Calvary.  Some have said it was called the Skull because the skulls of the people who were crucified were lying around.  I don’t think so.  I don’t think the Jews would have a place where skulls were lying all over the place.   But it’s interesting that its name is associated with the gruesome reality of what went on there, death. 
 
And we are simply told that “there they crucified Him”.
 
That’s the same phrase in all four gospels, very restrained.  We know it was Roman soldiers who actually crucified Jesus.  According to Matthew 27:34, they gave Him wine to drink mingled with gall.  As cruel as they were, there was a little bit of human sensibility in them so that they gave to the person who was to be crucified a mild sedative. 
It obviously did not come close to easing the agonies of crucifixion.  After all, they were there to be punished.  Its purpose was to sedate the criminal enough so they could get them nailed to the cross without a fight.
 
You will remember after tasting it, Jesus was unwilling to drink and specific mention is made of that fact.  He didn’t need to be sedated to get Him nailed there.  He would take it all with full senses.  He would put His hands there and His feet there willingly.  No one took His life; He willingly offered it. 
 
We also know He wasn’t crucified alone.  Two criminals are crucified at the same time.  Scripture is equally silent regarding them.  They are referred to in the Scripture both as criminals and robbers.
 
What we do know is they were all three crucified at the same time and in the same way.  I think sometimes we want to isolate Jesus out of that scene, but we can’t do that.  Whatever they experienced, Jesus experienced also.  All three of them got the exact same treatment.  All three are crucified in the exact same way, as thousands of others before them and after them would be. 
 
So what did they experience?  What did Jesus endure for you and me?  Through the years there has been a lot of study of crucifixion.  A lot of people have looked at the crucifixion of Christ from historical, biblical, and even medical and pathological viewpoints. 
 
 
 
Perhaps the most concise and helpful look was published as recently as March 21, 1986 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 
 
This particular study was done by the Department of Pathology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.  They took the precise statements of the four gospels, along with accurate historical sources and their pathological and medical knowledge and they put together this study. 
 
They included in their consideration that those who were crucified were generally beaten prior to the crucifixion.  We know that was true of Jesus. 
 
Braided leather thongs with bits of metal and sheep bone or some other kind of animal bone embedded in them were used to lash the victim from the bottom of the neck all the way down to the back of the knees.  At the time that he was being lashed, his arms were extended up and tied to a pole so that he was in something of a slumped position. 
 
Two soldiers would hit him with alternating blows.  We don’t know whether or not they followed the Jewish prescription of no more than 40 lashes.  We don’t know how many lashes these people received.  There’s no indication.  But all the results would be that the bone and the metal rip into the flesh, deep contusions, lacerations into subcutaneous tissues into the fabric of the muscles, pain, blood loss, and circulatory shock would ensue.
 
All three would have received this. Jesus had some additional agonies because it is said of Jesus that when they took Him back into the Judgment Hall after the beating, they put a robe on Him. 
To speculate a little, that would most likely have been a crusty old robe made of wool that would do nothing but agitate and irritate His open wounds. 
 
We know they jabbed a crown of thorns on His head, hit Him in the head with a stick and spit on Him.  And at some point, they ripped the robe back off Him which would again agitate and rip the wounds.
 
So there would be intense pain and blood loss, making the skin hyper-sensitive.  Add to that lack of sleep, lack of food, lack of water.  And after all of that, then came crucifixion for all three of them.
 
Now the Romans didn’t invent it, but, boy, did they perfect it.  It was a slow death with maximum agony.  The victims carried the cross, perhaps the crosspiece, across the back of their necks and their shoulders and their arms were tied to it.  
 
Jesus received help because apparently He wasn’t moving fast enough.  Simon of Cyrene was asked to carry His cross and either he took the piece off the shoulders of Jesus and carried it for Him, or Jesus was actually carrying His whole cross and Simon picked up the bottom of it that was banging along the cobblestones because Luke says he carried it behind him.
 
Arriving at the place of crucifixion, they would be offered that sedation which Jesus refused and they would be thrown to the ground on their backs.  The crosspiece would then be pulled under their shoulders and their arms were nailed to the cross piece.  The Romans used nails.  Archaeologists have found the remains of crucified victims from as early as the first century and earlier. 
And the nails were tapered iron spikes five to seven inches long, about half inch in diameter square.  They were driven through the wrists, rather than the palms of the hands so they could carry the full weight of the slumping body.
 
The impaled victim was then lifted up, and the feet were then nailed with the knees bent up.  The feet were nailed with one nail, one foot upon the other so that the victim could push up to breathe, to inhale and exhale and pull up on the wounds to do the same.  And whether pulling with the wrist or pushing with the feet, they would be pulling and pushing against the wound.
 
By the way, the soldiers could bring death in minutes by breaking the legs.  The broke the legs and the victim couldn’t push up, he would die in minutes because he couldn’t breathe.  To survive, the victim would push up and pull up on the wounds.  Insects would burrow into the wounds, into the eyes, the ears, the nose.  Birds of prey would tear at the open site. 
 
Each effort of the person on the cross to breathe would mean he had to pull himself up or push himself up which would then rub the open wounds up the course of the rugged cross and then back down again, ripping and shredding those wounds further. 
 
The nails in the wrist would crush or sever the long sensory median nerve.  Those of us who have experienced nerve pain might be able to perceive the relentless bolts of pain that were produced. The nails in the feet would likewise have pierced vital nerves with the same results. 
 
The weight of the body pulling against all these agonizing torturous bolts of pain, struggles, pulling itself up, pushing itself up, breathing is shallow, you don’t get enough oxygen, resulting in muscle contractions and cramping. 
 
Add to that dehydration, congestive heart failure, and hemorrhage and one can’t even begin to comprehend how painful all of it is. 
 
However, our language does have a word for it: excruciating. That’s the most extreme word we know in English to describe pain and it comes from Latin excrucia, out of the cross.
 
 
Once someone was believed to be dead, it would be confirmed by piercing the heart with a spear. The flow of blood and water, as it’s described in the Bible, would come out to indicate death.  And by the way, no one survived crucifixion.  And so verse 33 simply tells us, “And there they crucified Him”.
 
Now, the Jews should have known that instead of this proving that Jesus is not their Messiah, it did just the opposite.  It proved that He was their Messiah. 
 
As we close today, let’s go back a thousand years before the crucifixion by way of Psalm 22. 
 
Here we are in the time of King David.  Nobody has seen or heard of crucifixion.  It doesn’t come along for another five hundred years.  It doesn’t exit; hasn’t been conceived of. 
 
Notice verse 12
What are we being told?  Psalm 22 is a prophetic psalm.  It is looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. 
 
Bashan was originally Amorite land, east of the Jordan, south of Mount Herman, way up in the north of Israel, beautiful lush land.  The snow on Mount Herman sent down plenty of water into the north so that it was well-watered pasture land. 
 
As a result, they were lands where cattle were raised.  Great strong bulls grew in the land of Bashan.  Amos 4:1 says it was a land of cows.  Wherever you have bulls, you have cows.  And so this was a flourishing, fertile area.
 
It represents the powerful and the strong and so it is a symbol of the Jews, the powerful, the flourishing, the well fed, the well-watered Jews.  The psalmist says, prophetically of Jesus, they surround me, they encircle me.  They open wide their mouth at me as a ravening and a roaring lion.  This is hatred, animosity, hostility which is precisely what those well-fed and flourishing leaders of Israel were doing to Jesus as they surrounded Him at the cross.
 
And then he begins to describe something of what crucifixion is even though no one had ever seen such. 
 
Verses 14-18
 
No surprises here are there?  Not from our point of view.  And what we read in the New Testament is simply God bringing to pass the fulfillment of a prophecy from a thousand years before. 
Three hundred years later in 700, along came a prophet by the name of Isaiah and in Isaiah 53, He also describes this crucifixion before anyone had ever seen a crucifixion. 
 
Isaiah 53:5-6
 
The psalmist, a thousand years before, says His hands and His feet will be pierced.  Seven hundred years before Isaiah says he will be pierced.  And there you have what sets Jesus apart from the other two.  They were pierced for their own transgressions; He was pierced for ours.
 
Listen:  It is not the physical sufferings of Jesus that are unique.  It is the thing they accomplished that is unique. 
 
A hundred and fifty years later, still long before the Jews had been exposed to crucifixion, along comes another prophet by the name of Zechariah.   And Zechariah looking into the future says,
 
Zechariah 12:10

David predicted the piercing of Jesus.  Isaiah predicted the piercing of Jesus.  Five hundred and fifty years before the cross, Zechariah predicts the piercing of Jesus.  How could they have known this?  How could they have known the Messiah would be pierced?  Crucifixion didn’t exist. 
 
This “piercing” becomes the mark of His Messiahship.  Listen to Revelation 1:7, “Behold, He is coming with the clouds and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him.” 
Who is “even those who pierced Him”?  The Jews.  Some day they’re going to look on the one they pierced. 
 
It was not the physical elements of His crucifixion that were unique.  They were not unique.  It was the purpose and the achievement of His crucifixion that is unique.  Yes He was cursed, but He was made a curse for us.  Yes He was pierced but He was pierced for our transgressions.  It was foolishness to the Greeks.  It was a stumbling block to the Jews.  And they turned it into a joke.  But mark it down, there is coming a day in the future, the Jews will view it differently.  They will not laugh, they will weep.
 
Once Jesus was dead, the Jews lied about it and even bribed the Roman soldiers to lie about the resurrection, just to justify what they had done.  They had to keep up the joke, that this Jesus was the king. 
 
However, He was King.  For the moment, He looks to be a prince of fools, but how wrong an assessment that is!
 
In fact, what is happening there is the only thing that can ever save humanity.  In fact, that is the glaring contrast of the cross. 
 
The whole thing is twisted.  Justice should fall on them.  Instead it falls on Christ.  Judgment should crush them, it crushes Christ.  They accuse Him of blasphemy.  They are the blasphemers.  God has  every right to judge and destroy them them.
 
 
And how strange it is that when God’s fury should have come down on the crowd, instead it came down on Christ on behalf of those who are laughing at Him. 
 
You might say, “I don’t understand God.  I don’t understand how God can look at people who blasphemed His Son and be gracious to them. 
 
The answer is found in Isaiah 55:8 where God declares, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so our My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
 
When you would run out of patience, God does not.  God doesn’t look at things the same way we do. And if you need evidence that God is far beyond us, then just travel to the cross. 
 
He is infinitely beyond us in how He thinks and how He acts.  The uniqueness of God is that even when He is massively offended, He still comes to the offenders and warning them of the judgment to come offers them forgiveness and mercy and grace and compassion and makes them His children and takes them to His holy heaven forever.  It is that God who is hanging on the cross.  That God whose patience is far beyond ours because His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts.
 
The startling conclusion to this comedy is seen in that contrast between the laughter and sarcasm and insults of the crowd and the merciful intercession of the Christ. 
 
Verse 35, “And the people stood by looking on.”  Now Luke has given us the best possible spin on that crowd.  It just appears from Luke that there has been some kind of stupor, like watching some kind of blood sport.  Just looking on, watching the comedy play out. 
 
And then they ridiculed Him with sarcastic language that if He was a king, maybe He should exercise some of His great power.  They taunted Him.  It is without sympathy.  You cannot find sympathy in this crowd at all.  Nobody shows Him sympathy.  It is the most brutally cruel scene imaginable.
 
In fact, they don’t talk to Him at all.  There’s no record around the cross that they ever spoke to Him.  They speak to the crowd about Him.  “He saved others, let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.”  They never speak to Christ.  Their intention is to stir up the crowd.  So they never address Jesus.
 
He saved Himself, He saved others, let Him save Himself.  What do they mean by that?  Sheer sarcasm.  It’s ridicule.  He saved no one.  Who did He ever save from what?  He delivered noone.  And, of course, their view would be political military deliverance.
 
So, since He’s done such a great job of saving everybody else and delivering all of Israel, let Him deliver Himself.  Just total scorn. 
 
But over against that scene, notice verse 34.
 
 
Is that not shocking?  Without argument, whatever is being spewed out at the Son of God is the supreme blasphemy, the ultimate desecration of holiness, the lowest sin ever committed, wickedness at its lowest. This is man at his worst. 
 
And what we would expect is that Jesus would pop those nails out and make them pay for their sin immediately on the spot.  But He doesn’t.  Contrary to that He says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.”  He asks God to provide forgiveness for them. 
 
His first words were words seeking divine forgiveness for the world’s most wretched sinners.  Certainly this is Jesus the Father running to embrace the stinking prodigal, isn’t it? 
 
And what we find here is a general prayer for all the world to know that there’s no sin against the Son of God that is so severe it cannot be forgiven if one will repent.  That’s the message.  If there is forgiveness for these people, there is forgiveness for anyone.  You can’t get beyond this. 
 
But it’s more than just a general prayer, it’s a specific prayer.  When He said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing,” He knew who the “them” was because in just a few days on the Day of Pentecost, three thousand Jews in Jerusalem would be converted to Christ and baptized and the church would begin.  Within a few more weeks, Jerusalem will be turned upside down by those who come to Jesus for salvation. 
 
 
But it is also a specific prayer because there beside Jesus was a thief on the cross who figured out it wasn’t a joke.  He said, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.”  And to him Jesus said, “Today I’ll meet you in Paradise.”  Jesus was the real thing. 
 
Later in verse 47, we discover there was at the foot of the cross a Roman soldier for whom that prayer was answered that day.   He figured out this was no comedy.  Jesus was the real thing.  
 
And the great irony of Calvary is that while all of this scorn was being heaped on Christ, He was bearing the curse of God far worse than anything they could put on Him.  You think it’s bad to be cursed by men, He was being cursed by God.  But in taking both the curses from men and the curse from God, He provided the very atonement which makes the forgiveness He prayed for possible.
 
You may not laugh at the cross.  You may not see it as comedy.  Perhaps most people don’t, but I’ll assure of this, most people don’t take it seriously enough.  How serious is the cross?  There is no salvation, no forgiveness, no heaven unless you embrace Jesus as your Lord and Savior and believe in the sacrifice that He offered at the cross to pay the penalty for your sin.  You either take the cross seriously, or you become an eternal tragedy.
 
In fact, the only way you will ever know real joy and peace and laughter is to see Calvary for the tragedy that it was.  To respond any other way is to see it as nothing more than the biggest joke of history. 
 
Let’s pray
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