I Was There – Were You?
We have sung those words which you know by heart: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” But I have a question for you: Have you ever heard of a song which goes like this: “Were you there when they handed the cup of poison to Socrates?” Or, “Were you there when they assassinated Julius Caesar?” Or, “Were you there when Abraham Lincoln breathed his last?”
Speaking for myself, I can say: “No, I was not there for any of these events, for I was in no way involved in them.” The philosophical destruction of Socrates holds no sway over my personal experience. The political in-fighting of Caesar’s Rome bears no relationship to my everyday living. And, while I am an unabashed admirer of Abraham Lincoln, I do not feel myself to have been personally involved in his death. So I was not there for any of these events.
But when it comes to Calvary, when it comes to the death of my Lord Jesus Christ—well, that is an entirely different matter. For you see, I was there. Peter is speaking to me when he says in the Book of Acts: “This Jesus…you crucified.” I can say that because Christ was nailed to His Cross not by any spectacular sins or horrible deeds. Rather, He was crucified by common, ordinary, garden-variety sins—the kind of sins in which I am a specialist. And He was strung up to die by decent, hard-working, law-abiding citizens—the kind of citizens I fancy myself as being. To put that another way, every attitude present on that hilltop there dwells in me now. Every emotion that tugged at human hearts then, tugs at my heart now. Every sin that bubbled to the surface that day in Jerusalem has surfaced at one time or another in my own life. The people involved that day might well have borne my name and face. The hands that killed him might well have been my hands. I was there…
Now there are those who would suggest that the only reason the cross speaks to me like this is that the cross has had a great moral influence in history. I won’t argue with that. The only problem with that is that it doesn’t go far enough. It is perfectly clear that the greatest art, the greatest sculpture, the greatest music, the greatest literature—all of it has found its birth, its maturity in the cross of Jesus Christ. But the cross does not speak to me 2000 years after the fact simply because of the moral impact it has had on society and civilization. For if that is all that the cross is—something to inspire to love like Jesus loved and have courage like Jesus had courage—if that is all the cross is then it is a failure. For the plain truth is that I don’t often love like Jesus loved, and it is not a frequent occurrence that Jesus’ kind of courage takes up residence in me. And it doesn’t begin to explain how today, twenty dusty centuries after the fact, I stand here to say with all of the conviction I can muster: “I was there.”
Oh, I know, you see that I couldn’t have been there. In part you are right. I can’t hear Jesus’ cry from the cross—that was 2000 years ago.The earth does:—not shudder with quaking now as it did then—that was 2000 years ago. But I tell you this: somehow I cannot separate myself from it. I find myself thinking about it. I find myself being gripped by it. When the picture of it springs to the forefront of my mind, I find myself having to fight back the rush of tears. Why? Because I was involved—Because I was there. I am not just a spectator glancing back across history. I was there. The sins that killed Him are my sins. I know it. Peter said it right. This Jesus I crucified. I was there. So when I look at the cross of Jesus Christ, there are three things I remember.
First, I remember that God loved me on Calvary.
God loved me enough to let His Son die. It could have been avoided. You are aware of that, aren’t you? I mean, He could have struck a deal with Caiaphas, or He could have made an under-the-table arrangement with Pilate, or He could even have called down the twelve legions of angels who stand ready for His command. But He didn’t do any of these things. He let it happen. Why? Because He sent Jesus to be my Saviour. A saviour cannot be a saviour until he is willing to lay down his life. A soldier cannot save both his life and his country—he lays down his life for the sake of his country. Just so my Saviour is the One who pays the price for me. In His dying, Jesus saved me. God loves me that much.
Now understand, please, that God never said that I had to meet certain requirements in order to experience His love. He never said that I had to embrace certain doctrines, or be a member of a certain church or give myself to this ritual or that sacrament. On Calvary He loved me with a love which is unconditional. And I have no alternative but to call that fantastically good news. I call that the Gospel. For that’s the only thing in all the world that gives me any sense of worth at all. If God loved me that much, then surely this life of mine must be worth something after all. It must be so. When I look at the cross, I know it is so.
I know not how that Calvary’s cross
A world from sin could free
I only know its matchless love
Has brought God’s love to me.
I know it is so, because I was there.
Secondly, I remember that not only did God love me back there on Calvary, but that God loves me still.
Calvary is not a “once upon a time” event out of ancient history. It is happening still. The love that God showed on the cross is as real now as it was then. We need never doubt that.
Samuel Johnson’s biographer was James Boswell. Boswell was the kind of person who frequently needed to be reassured of other people’s love for him. He was constantly badgering Johnson to find out if Johnson still cared for him. Finally Johnson said to him: “Listen, my regard for you is greater than I have the words to express, but I do not care to be always repeating it, so write it down on the front page of your note book and you will never have to doubt it again.” Well, just so, because Jesus died on the cross for me, I can write across the front page of my life these words: “I never have to doubt God’s love for me.”
I think here of the true story of an artist named Stenberg who lived in Germany. He had been commissioned to paint a picture of the crucifixion. The artist was not a Christian and had no intention of ever becoming one. One day a young girl was in the studio and saw the unfinished painting of Christ on the cross. It aroused her curiosity. She didn’t know what it was. She said to the artist: “Who is that?” Stenberg replied rather casually: “That’s Jesus Christ.” The girl continued: “What is happening to him?” Stenberg said: “It’s a painting of when they killed Him. But I haven’t the time to talk of such foolishness now.” But the girl wouldn’t be put off. “Was he bad?” The artist replied rather brusquely: “No, he was very good.” The girl cried: “Then, why was he killed?” In exasperation, Stenberg proceeded to tell her the story, though the words had no meaning for him. But as the young girl heard the story she was deeply touched. She could hardly contain her emotion. When Stenberg finished the story, the girl said softly: “You must love him very much since He loves you so much.” These words pierced Stenberg’s heart like an arrow. He looked over at the unfinished painting and he saw something he had never seen before. He saw the love that Jesus had for him. That painting became his masterpiece. But more than that, it became his gateway to the love of God. I understand that, because when I look at the cross I cannot fail to see the love that God has for me. I understand because I was there.
Then, thirdly, I remember not only that God loved me on Calvary and that He loves me still, but that His love for me will continue unto all eternity.
Jesus Christ, by the power of His love, has transformed the cross, an instrument of death and defeat, into an instrument of life and everlasting victory. That means that the love of God will engulf me for all eternity. Never to be forgotten by God—that’s what the love of the cross means to me.
James Martineau was a great English philosopher who began his distinguished career at Dublin University. While he was teaching there, Martineau and his wife had a baby. The baby died soon after birth and was buried there in Dublin. Later, Martineau moved on to other universities in other places, earning in the process the highest acclaim of the academic world. The decades passed. Then, late in life, the great philosopher lost his beloved wife and was left for a lonely walk the rest of his days. When he was 87, Dublin University held a great celebration in his honor and he returned to the place where his career had begun. Great crowds gathered to honor him. But late in the day, with the help of a friend, he separated himself from the crowd and went out to a little cemetery. Standing there, bareheaded in the rain, he prayed and remembered with love the child who was buried in that grave. There was not a single person in Dublin that day who remembered the baby who had died more than 60 years before, not a single person remembered—except its father. The love of a father never forgets. And the cross of Jesus Christ is the expression of the love of my heavenly Father—a love that will last for all eternity—a love that will never, ever forget. I believe that, for I was there.
All this time I have been talking about myself, haven’t I? But I cannot leave it there. So I want to ask you to do something that may seem a bit unusual. I want you to close your eyes. I want you to block out of your mind everything and everyone about. Now, in your mind’s eye, picture Jesus on the cross. Think of nothing else, only of Jesus on that cross. Now I want you to whisper to yourself these words: “He is dying there for me.” Now, open your eyes. Do you believe what you just said—that Jesus actually died for you and for me? Do you believe that the blood He shed washed away our sins—yours and mine? Do you believe that the sacrifice He made there purchased our salvation—yours and mine?
Do you hear what I am trying to say? This is not a story intended for someone else. This is my story—this is your story. This is not a song for someone else to sing. This is my song—this is your song. What greater hope and assurance could there ever be? Jesus died for me. Jesus died for you. Jesus is mine. Jesus is yours.
I know these things are true, because you see, I was there…and so were you.