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 Vol. 4, No. 7 

July, 2002

~ Page 12 ~

Changes of Heart
on Crucifixion Day

By Hugo McCord

Hugo McCord With thorns scratching bloody marks on Jesus' head, with lacerations on his naked back, with nails in his hands and feet, and with loud railing in his ears, he did not respond with ugly words (1 Peter 2:23). Instead he prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). What a response! That kind and caring reaction apparently changed some hearts on crucifixion day.

I. A Penitent Thief

Two robbers, dying on each side of Jesus, did what the mob was doing: they "cast upon him the same reproach" (Matthew 27:44). However, as the time passed, one of the thieves no doubt noticed that Jesus, though he "was cursed, did not reply with a curse"; though "he suffered, he did not threaten" (1 Peter 2:23). The heart of that thief had been touched by Jesus, and he rebuked his fellow-robber:

"Do you not fear God, since you are under the same condemnation? We indeed justly, for we are receiving just payment for the things we have done; but this man has done nothing wrong" (Luke 23:40-41).

That penitent thief apparently had heard Jesus preach about his coming kingdom, but had paid no attention to the idea. Now, however, after his change of heart on the cross, he recalled what Jesus had preached, and he begged the Lord, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42).

Jesus, knowing there was sincerity back of the thief's prayer, granted him forgiveness of his railing and of his thievery, and promised him, "Indeed, I assure you that you will be with me in Paradise today" (Luke 23:43).

Incidentally, and yet not incidentally, Jesus, during his personal ministry, had "authority on the earth to forgive sins" (Mark 2:10) on any conditions he pleased. Baptism was not required of a paralyzed man carried on a stretcher, or of a sinful woman who washed the Lord's feet with tears, or a tax collector who gave half of his income to the poor, or of the crucified thief (Mark 2:3; Luke 7:38; 19:8).

But beginning from Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (May 28, A.D. 30) salvation is promised only to those who are baptized (Acts 2:38-39). The worldwide commission of Jesus for all people to the end of the world does not omit baptism (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-47).

II. A Roman Centurion

Besides the thief, someone else was deeply affected on crucifixion day. The Roman centurion, assigned to the job of crucifying three men, probably knew nothing about any of the three. But as the day wore on, something about the man in the middle deeply impressed the captain. He heard Jesus pray, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing," and he heard him pray, "Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands" (Luke 23:34, 46).

Those prayers, coupled with the earthquake and the noonday darkness, made the centurion realize that the man in the middle was not ordinary. The man in the middle caused the captain to praise God, saying, "Certainly this man was righteous" (Luke 23:47). Also, as he "stood opposite" Jesus, and "saw how he died," the officer exclaimed, "Truly, this man was a son of God" (Mark 15:39). It is too much to say that the centurion confessed Jesus as "the Son of God" (inserting "the" and capitalizing "Son"), but the Roman captain had learned during the crucifixion that "this man" had a connection with deity, and he confessed it.

III. Simon of Cyrene

Beside the thief, and beside the captain, someone else was deeply affected by what he saw and heard on crucifixion day. "A certain Simon of Cyrene," a large city in Libya, where "many Jews had settled" (A-G-D), some 800 miles from Jerusalem (modern day, Tripoli), probably having come to Jerusalem for the Passover, happened along the street where Jesus was struggling alone with a wooden beam, "bearing the cross for himself to the place called 'The place of a skull,' which is called in Hebrew Golgotha" (John 19:17). Apparently, Jesus fell under the weight and the officer in charge "forced Simon, a passerby coming in from the country, to carry the cross" (Mark 15:21). Since the inspired writer said that Simon was "forced" ("pressed into service," aggareuo), it is evident that he was not a disciple of Jesus, only "a passerby" (Mark 15:21, NASV).

Simon of Cyrene bore
The cross of Jesus -- nothing more.
His name is never heard again,
Nor honored by historic pen;
Nor on the pedestal of fame
His image courts the loud acclaim;
Simon of Cyrene bore
The cross of Jesus, nothing more.
And yet, when all our work on earth is done,
And golden beams the western sun
Upon a life of wealth and fame;
A thousand echoes ring our name;
Perhaps our hearts will humbly pray,
Good Master, let my record say
Upon the page divine, "He bore
The cross of Jesus, nothing more."

Simon may never have become a disciple of Jesus, but what Mark wrote, about 35 years after crucifixion day, indicates that Simon not only did what he was forced to do, but also tarried at the crucifixion to see what happened. The indication is that he did tarry and that he was deeply impressed by Jesus' brief utterances during his six hours on the cross, so much so that Simon became a disciple of Jesus, a dedicated one, and for the rest of his life rejoiced

... that he alone, of all men on earth, was allowed to touch and to carry the very cross of Jesus, the Master of Men. ... What joy would fill his heart! He could never again think of Jesus and his cross without a tear in his eye, but with bursting joy in his heart (Martel Pace, "The Way of the Cross: John 19:17-19," Gospel Advocate, March 1993, p. 19).

Also, there is a strong indication that Simon taught his wife and sons, Rufus and Alexander, about the Savior, and that they became active Christians. Mark identified Rufus and Alexander as sons of Simon (Mark 15:21). Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, asked them to "Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother. She is my mother too" (Romans 16:13).

Nothing is known about Simon's other son Alexander, but the fact remains that Mark mentioned him by name, along with his brother Rufus, some 35 years after Simon's carrying the cross (Mark 15:31), is a strong indication that he too was a faithful Christian, following in the footsteps of his father and mother and brother.

Beautiful then is the thought that on crucifixion day a man who had been forced to carry the cross had undergone a radical change in his heart, and for the rest of his life practiced what Jesus had preached: "If any one wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and let him take up his cross, and let him follow me" (Matthew 16:24). Moreover, he would be able to say, "as for me and my house, we will serve" Jesus (Joshua 24:15).

IV. Two Supreme Court Judges

In addition to the radical heart changes on crucifixion day by a penitent thief and by a Roman soldier, and in addition to the apparent change in heart and life of an unwilling cross-bearer, there is evidence that two supreme court judges had changes of heart that day.

One was Joseph of Arimathaea (a city of Judea), a "good and righteous" man, a respected attorney and a judge in the Supreme Court (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50). He had become a disciple of Jesus and was expecting the kingdom of God (Mark 15:43; John 19:38).

At Jesus' trial before the Supreme Court (the Sanhedrin), he did not vote to condemn Jesus, but cowardly he stayed quiet, letting no one know that he was a disciple of the Lord (Luke 23:51; John 19:38). How he must have grieved during the crucifixion! Gradually, however, the ashamed disciple developed more courage. Finally, he dared to go openly to the governor and ask for Jesus' body (Mark 15:43).

On being allowed to take the body, he bought a piece of fine Indian linen (a sindon), removed the body from the cross and wrapped it. Then he placed it in his new tomb cut out of a rock (Matthew 27:60; Mark 15:46). Some 800 years before that burial scene, Isaiah had predicted that the Lord would be "with a rich man in his death" (Isaiah 53:9; Matthew 27:57).

Another attorney, likewise a supreme court judge, named Nicodemus, was an admirer of Jesus (John 3:2). He was convinced by Jesus' miracles that he was a "teacher come from God" (John 3:2). But, like Joseph of Arimathaea, apparently he was a secret disciple. Twice it is mentioned he sought out Jesus at night, not in the daytime (John 3:2; 19:39).

However, on one occasion he was bold to say a good word for Jesus, and was quickly branded as a disciple of Jesus (John 7:50-52). On crucifixion day, like Joseph, he came out of hiding and openly helped Joseph with the burying. He bought about 80 pounds (100 litras) of expensive embalming perfumes, myrrh and aloes (John 19:39).

V. Jesus' Half-Brothers

Thus, what happened on crucifixion day changed the hearts of a thief, of a centurion, of a passerby and of two cowardly disciples. It may also be said that on crucifixion day the hearts of Jesus' half-brothers -- James, Joseph, Simon and Jude -- were also changed (Mark 6:3; John 7:5). They had been openly disdainful of his work: "If you are doing these things, show yourself to the world" (John 7:4).

Apparently, they continued in that attitude at least up to crucifixion day. On that day, their mother, likely now a widow, stood by the cross (John 19:25). In Mary's most difficult hour none of her sons, and apparently none of her daughters (Mark 7:3), stood by her side, a time that 34 years before the old prophet Simon had predicted: "a sword will pierce your soul" (Luke 2:35).

As Jesus hung suffering, he thought of his mother and was forced to turn to a non-family person to take care of her (John 19:25). That sad fact apparently means that all of his brothers and sisters were unsympathetic (cf. Matthew 13:56).

However, it is likely that Jesus' brothers and sisters were standing not far away, and it is probable that finally their hearts were touched when they saw with what grace and love their brother suffered shame and rough treatment. This is probable because the next time one hears of Jesus' brothers they were believers, and were with their mother in a prayer meeting in an upper room in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12-14). We hope that the word "brothers" in this instance is generic and so is inclusive of Jesus' sisters (Acts 1:14).

Perhaps all of them were in the 3000 baptized on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41). We do have a hint that Jesus' four brothers became faithful and active Christians, listed along with the twelve apostles (1 Corinthians 9:5). It appears, too, that two of Jesus' brothers, James and Jude, were selected to write two of the New Testament books.

Jesus did not preach a long sermon on crucifixion day, but what he said and what he did not say changed some hearts.

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