There were a number of identifiable types of people with similar characteristics witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion and death. They came by in groups or singly but could be easily classified into one of four groups. A few people who loved Jesus or many who hated him, and those who didn’t know him, didn’t care about him, and two who were crucified with him. Everyone present, who walked by that hill, who stood and watched or tried to ignore what was happening was affected by his death in some way.
Many people traveled into and out of Jerusalem and had to pass by the public place of execution. I visualize many simply lowering their heads and trying to ignore the suffering displayed for the world to see by those brutalized by the Romans. Many, I think having become desensitized to the suffering of the condemned ceased to care for any affixed to a cross. They faced too many almost daily acts of terror and in order to continue living a meaningful existence, especially to care for themselves, they could no longer empathize or sympathize with those who suffered. Taught, through gruesome exposure and the examples of their parents, relatives, friends and others, they lost, if they ever had, the idea another human, especially one they did not know, was valuable. Included in this large group are the Roman guards who had been taught to care for no one but Caesar and themselves.
Others, recognizing him, disfigured as he was, or being informed of who he was, reviled him. They had been taught in the same way but their hatred or apathy toward Jesus was shown in their decided lack of understanding of who he was. “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” [Matthew 27:39-40 ESV]. They vilified him. Some, remembering statements from the beginning of his public appearances threw his words back in his bruised and bleeding face. He had made, in their memory, extravagant claims which seemed impossible and fantastic. Some of these may have been the same false witnesses who accused him hours earlier, in the middle of night during the illegal and illegitimate trial. “Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days'” [Matthew 26:59-61 ESV]. Others may have just been walking by and picked up the derisive comments from those present.
Standing at a distance reveling in their handiwork were the ones who manipulated Pilate to murder an innocent man. These were the religious leaders charged with knowing, teaching and upholding the law of God. Even Caiaphas, the High Priest, was present. Having abandoned themselves to emotional false conclusions they exhibited the qualities and evidences of thugs. Considered thinkers, wise and knowledgeable in their abilities to remember the law and teach others to follow it they switched off their ability to reason and took up the characteristics of a barbaric and vulgar people. “So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him” [Matthew 27:41 ESV]. In the most real sense their mocking statements were not against Jesus but against God. Taking the core of Jesus’ teaching they twisted it and placed upon the words requirements they had to see in order to believe. Their words threw a test into God’s face demanding from Him fulfillment of their requirements before they would acknowledge truth. In their deepest selves they would never believe the truth even if the almost dead man hanging on the cross before them actually died and was then raised as he said he would.
Listen to their statements:
“He saved others; he cannot save himself.” This statement begs a question. Did Jesus want to save himself? In their minds the only legitimate and reasonable response to being crucified was the desire to get off the cross and escape the executioners. For them being saved is limited to the physical, temporary, touchable world and has nothing to do with the internal and eternal being of the person.
“He is the King of Israel.” This is not what Jesus said but it is what they heard. Jesus said his kingdom was from another place implying not geographic boundaries but “other” or spiritual boundaries reaching places unimaginable by the limited abilities of anyone. For them Jesus declaration of royalty was a lie. For Pilate Jesus’ agreeing to the question of royalty was lunacy. His coming resurrection is the evidence of reality.
“Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” He will. They won’t.
“He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” [Matthew 27:42-43 ESV] Now they demand God work. Again, their statement begs another question. Does God desire to deliver Jesus in a way acceptable to them? They have set aside God’s known law by murdering an innocent man. His only “crime” was his words, which contradicted their teaching, and the undisputable (we will look at these in time) “miracles” he did in front of too many witnesses for them to refute. Their thinking, driven by their emotions and not their reasoning, says if Jesus is actually the son of God then God will not allow him to die in such a way.
Next to him, hanging from their own devices, soon to die were two criminals. “And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way” [Matthew 27:44 ESV]. Luke gives a different perspective. These perspectives are not contradictory just different. One of the men crucified with him, seeking his own deliverance from death, showing no remorse at the actions which condemned him, “railed” or vilified him, picking up the mocking words of those who hated Jesus. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us” [Luke 23:39 ESV]! He did not care who Jesus was as long as the man could get them down and away. No one got down or away.
The other criminal, facing his own mortality, reasoned instead of reacted. He knew he had done wrong, violated known law, done criminal actions deserving death. He knew the sentence for his crimes was death. He also seemed to know something about God. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation” [Luke 23:40 ESV]? He knew this other man. He didn’t know Jesus. Or, maybe he knew of Jesus. To fear God means to hold Him in high honor, with respect and reverence, as the One who is Judge. He knew he had done wrong in the eyes of Rome and of God. Until this moment he may have not cared. Seeing Jesus, an innocent man, subjected to the same punishment brought a conviction of the justice for his crimes but the unjust actions of the authorities toward Jesus. “And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” [Luke 23:41 ESV].
Now he makes a surprising statement. This is probably the first truly extraordinary statement made by anyone from the time he was arrested in the middle of the night until now. Every other statement made and action done was the result of a logical progression of events or thought process. Of this man’s background and thinking we know almost nothing and have to assume much. We know he was a criminal deserving of death. He admits this. We know he has a concept of God, probably closely related to the Jewish idea and theology of the time because of his question to his dying colleague. But how and why he jumps to the next statement seems only an act of desperation, of grasping at straws, anything to give hope to a helpless man in a hopeless situation. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” [Luke 23:42 ESV]. Does he really believe Jesus is a king? Does he really believe Jesus is something other than a man, falsely accused, dying a slow torturous death on a cross a few feet away?
Jesus’ answer is just a startling as any he has given throughout the night and trial. Our question is not whether it is startling but if it is true. There is only one way to show the truth of any of Jesus’ statement. If what he said would happen actually happens then we can trust him to tell truth in all he says. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” [Luke 23:43 ESV]. Jesus believes his own words. He knows something only he can know with ultimate certainty. Both men will soon be dead. For Jesus death is not final.
Among the people witnessing the horror of Jesus’ execution were some of those who followed him. These people loved him. Here is the final type of person who witnessed his death.