Golgotha means “the place of the skull.” It’s not a very happy-sounding name, and what took place here was most likely even more gruesome than the name suggests. But on the other hand, what took place here at Golgotha is what has made it the holiest site in all of Christendom. To find out what happened here, and why it matters to so many people, take a look at this short video below. Then read on to find out how God can use the sadness of what happened at Golgotha to bring incredible joy to your life today.
So what happened at Golgotha? That’s where Jesus died, was buried, and rose again again from the dead.
When Jesus was arrested and sentenced to death, He and those who were to be executed with Him walked through the streets of Jerusalem, carrying their crosses when they could, and having others carry their crosses for them when they couldn’t. Eventually they came to the execution site. The Bible says:
They came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, He refused to drink it. When they had crucified Him, they divided up His clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over Him there (Matthew 26:33-36).
Golgotha was undoubtedly a horrific place, just outside the walls of the city at the time of Christ. It seems to have gotten its name either because of all the crucifixions that took place there, or because the hill itself actually resembled a skull. Either way, the hill called Golgotha was a picture of death.
But the day that Christ died there, something changed. When Christ died on the cross, Golgotha became a picture of life, filled with the beauty of sacrificial love.
There’s a song that explains how Golgotha—and the cross of Christ—could come to represent such an unusual mixture of death and life. George Bennard said it this way in his song, The Old Rugged Cross:
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
the emblem of suffering and shame;
and I love that old cross where the dearest
and best for a world of lost sinners was slain.
In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, a wondrous beauty I see,
for ‘twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, to pardon and sanctify me.
This is why crosses are so prevalent in jewelry, churches, and other holy places. It’s not because Christians have some perverse fascination with death, like wearing little guillotines around their necks on a chain. Jesus didn’t express His love to us by dying on a guillotine. He expressed it by dying on a cross. And it’s the love that Christ expressed for us when He died on the cross that we celebrate as Christians, and that’s why we make so much of His cross.
It is both an “emblem of suffering and shame,” and also a “wondrous beauty” to behold, all at the same time.
There are two spots in Jerusalem that are considered potential locations of Christ’s crucifixion. One is the Garden Tomb, which was discovered in 1848 and which I highlighted in the introduction of this book. The other is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (“sepulchre” means “tomb” in Latin), and has been the traditional site of the crucifixion since the 1st and 2nd century. Today I’d like to focus on the the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
For those interested, the church itself was first built and dedicated in 335 A.D. by Helena, the mother of Constantine, after she had been shown this site by the believers in Jerusalem at that time. The church has undergone many changes over the years, but the location has remained the same.
When I walked into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the first time, and up the stairs to the right that led to the top of the small hill called Golgotha over which the church was built, I was overcome with emotion. It wasn’t because of anything I saw there—for it was filled with candles and tourists and objects that glittered with gold. I was overcome with emotion because of what had happened there.
I dropped to my knees. I thanked God for all He had done for me there. And I cried.
I knew that Jesus wasn’t the One who should have died on the cross that day. He was totally innocent. It should have been me. It was me who had sinned, and it was me who should have had to pay the price for those sins. But Jesus did it for me, of His own free will, as a demonstration of His love for me.
He could have called twelve legions of angels to rescue Him if He had wanted, as He told Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Matthew 26:53). But He didn’t.
The fact that Jesus stepped in to pay for my sins with His life has been, and still is, the greatest expression of love I have ever felt in my life. While others have loved me dearly, like my family and friends, Jesus is the only one who could have stepped in and did for me what He did: fully forgiving me of my sins.
When I got back up from my knees, I walked downstairs again and to the other side of the massive church, to the spot where they believe Jesus was buried in a tomb nearby. The walls and ceiling of the tomb have been destroyed over the years, as the church has changed hands and been ransacked many times since then. Only a plain slab of rock remains of the place where they believe He was lain, and that is housed in a small chapel under the great dome of the church.
While there’s little to see there, of course, for neither Christ nor much of the tomb are there, the site is vivid enough in the memories of those who are familiar with the story to recreate in their minds the scene of what happened there. As it says in the Bible:
“Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” (John 19:38-42).
And then, a few days later:
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; He has risen, just as He said. Come and see the place where He lay. Then go quickly and tell His disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him.’ Now I have told you” (Matthew 28:1-7).
So you can see why this place has become such a sacred spot to those who claim Jesus as their Lord. While the ravages of time, battles, earthquakes, and fires have taken their toll on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the events that made this place so holy are no less compelling today than they were when they first took place.
It is not the church itself that has brought millions of people like me here to visit it. It is the realization that what happened here was real, and that God really did love us so much that He sent His one and only Son to die for us so that we could put our faith in Him and live forever.
As incredible it is to be able to be able to go to Jerusalem and touch the ground where Jesus died and rose again, if there was one thing that I could encourage you to do in your lifetime, it wouldn’t be to go to Jerusalem. It would be to go to Jesus, to put your faith in Him who died on the cross for your sins, rose again from the dead, and who now calls you to live your life for Him, following Him here on earth and on into heaven.
If there’s sin in your life, drop it now at the foot of His cross. If you’re involved in lying or stealing, gossiping or cheating, pre-marital or extra-marital or any other kind of sinful sex, turn away from it today and turn back again. If you’re burying your gifts in the sand, saving them for no one and nothing in particular, dig them out and put them to work for the kingdom of God. You’ll be blessed when you do and so will those around you.
Most of all, you’ll be able to express your love back to Christ , the One who expressed His love for you—and for all to see—there on the hill called Golgotha.
Father, thank You for sending Jesus to die for our sins, and for giving us the chance to be forgiven when we put our faith in Him. Thank You for filling us with Your Holy Spirit, to enable us to do the work here on earth that You’ve called us to do. And thank You for promising to take us to be with You in heaven when our life on earth is over, where we can live with You forever. In Jesus’ name, Amen.