Jesus was not alone at the cross. A whole cast of characters were there. Every gospel tells us so. Below are a few that we meet in the Gospel of Luke.
The soldiers who crucified Jesus were there. Somebody had to do the job. Somebody had to stretch out His arms, stack His feet, and pound those long spikes through flesh and bone into the rough timber of the cross. Somebody had keep order and see that things were done just so—you know, the Roman way. The soldiers were there.
Jesus’ critics were there. They wanted Him crucified and they got their wish. But no, they couldn’t leave well enough alone. They had to heap insult upon injury. So there they were, mocking Jesus from ground level: “He saved others; let him save himself. He could do it, you know, if he’s really the Christ of God, really the Chosen One, really the Messiah.” One insult after another fired like missiles at the suffering Christ. And they were having such fun mocking Jesus that even some of the soldiers joined in. Jesus’ critics were there.
Pilate was there … well, not in the flesh but in spirit. He was there in the sign that hung above Jesus’ head—the sign that read, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” That was written in three languages. Jesus’ critics didn’t want that sign. Pilate did—perhaps to soothe his guilty conscience. Pilate ordered it. And it was done. Pilate was there.
Two criminals were there. They were hanging on their own crosses. They had done the crime and now they were doing the time. Did they deserve crucifixion? Nobody deserved crucifixion: it was the absolute worst way to die. Either one of them would have gladly said, “Slit my throat. Run me through with a sword. Shoot an arrow in my heart. Anything but a cross.” But a cross it was for both of them. And that was a good thing for one of them. It takes a long time to die on a cross and one of those criminals used that time to turn from his sins and trust Jesus for his salvation: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus remembered him. Two criminals were there.
The Centurion was there. He was ramrodding the whole show. This was his grisly duty for the day, and like any Roman Centurion he did it by the book and he did it well. Apparently, he was paying closer attention than his soldiers. When Jesus died he couldn’t help himself but to say, “Surely this was a righteous man.” We don’t know the full extent of what he meant by that comment, but we can be sure he meant at least this: “This man is innocent and he did not deserve to die like this.” The Centurion was there.
Jesus’ followers, including a number of women, were there. Luke tells us that they “stood at a distance, watching these things.” Watching what things? The death of their leader? The death of their hopes and dreams? The death of their courage? Did they whisper among one another, “We should have defended him. We should have fought for him. We should have done something to prevent this.” Jesus’ followers may have stood at a distance, but they were there.
Of course, Jesus was there. That’s Him on the middle cross, the center of attention. For the most part He suffers in silence. Luke records that Jesus said three things altogether: words of forgiveness for those whose schemes and nails affixed Him to the cross, a word of salvation for a penitent criminal who asked for it, and a final word—a little prayer from Psalm 31: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Many were there that day. When the show was over they walked away. Jesus didn’t walk away. He had to be carried away—carried away to a grave because He was dead.
Jesus was not alone at the cross. A whole cast of characters were there. And you know who else was there? You were there. Your sins put Jesus on that cross. You were there in the killing and the mocking. You were there at a distance, and you were there close enough to get His blood on you. You were there.
Make the most of this. Take note of who is dying there. Take note that He is dying for your sins, enduring your hell, opening a door for you to God and life and heaven. Fall down on your face before Him who loves you to the uttermost and to the bitter end. Cry out to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And give thanks that He does.
At the top of this post you see Rembrandt's painting, The Raising of the Cross. Notice anything curious about it? Rembrandt painted himself into the picture. He even kept himself in his modern clothes to emphasize his personal involvement in the crucifixion. Even though Rembrandt lived 17 centuries after Christ died on the cross, even though he didn't live anywhere near Jerusalem, the artist knew that he was there.
And whether you paint yourself in a picture, whether you lived in the first century or the twenty-first century, you were at the cross. You were there at the place where God’s love meets your sin, where God’s grace meets your need, where God’s mercy turns you from a sinner to a saint.
So on this Good Friday, remember Jesus, remember the cross, and remember, thank God, that you were there.