It was warm the afternoon I stood below 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 “house of stoning,” where early Christian tradition places the martyrdom of Stephen. In other words, this 50-foot, rocky precipice just outside the Damascus Gate of the northwest wall of the city was where bad guys went to be 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 Doctor Luke bothered to write it down, and I’m so glad he did.
We as 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 Savior to determine our worth, to realize 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 see 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 upturned faces of those who’d come to watch Jesus die and 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. On 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 described in detail the arrest, mock trial, and subsequent condemnation of Jesus, his report carries us to “the place called the Skull” where Jesus was crucified (verse 33). And Luke mentioned that “two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed” (verse 32).
Now we find Jesus nailed to a Roman cross with two bad guys, one on either side, each one hanging from his own cross. I’m guessing the efficient Romans decided that as 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 whom? The bad guys? The soldiers still gripping their blood-stained hammers? The self-absorbed spiritual 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 numb 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 lowly shepherds keeping watch over their flocks among the parched hills of Judea.
I believe that those agonizing 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.
Perhaps our actions have condemned the Savior anew. 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 banned His message of love and forgiveness from our churches, spending precious worship time arguing politics or defending sinful ways using vague references straight from the Bible. We’ve rejected Him in public, choosing to be “cool” or worldly instead of sticking to what we know to be right.
For many of us, finding no divine support for our 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 outcomes.
Finally, we roam the barren hills alone, failing to accept the companionship of a God who understands us much more than we realize.
But hidden within those 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 Savior cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (verse 34; emphasis added).
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 set ourselves up 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 curious mobs 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 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 worldly emotions.
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 throngs of people, the merchants and sellers, the spiritual leaders, or the man or woman wandering alone among the 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 the Savior 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, missionary Robert C. Mills, 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 bus station located at the foot of the hill. Like me, he allowed the memories of what happened there 2,000 years ago to dominate his thoughts.
He told me later that he found himself humming a familiar hymn. “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross.” Then he suddenly realized that the hill wasn’t far away at all. It was right there under his feet.
With tears, he added, “Instantly, another song sprang to mind. How thrilling it will be when the ‘sweet by and by’ is today.”
Thanks to those incredible words uttered by Christ on 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.