While most Christians have at least some appreciation of the theological implications of the death of Christ, few of us have grasped the apologetic impact of the crucifixion. I have always felt that the crucifixion of Christ was a time of triumph for the crowds, and of agony for those who were true followers of our Lord. In my mind, it was not until the resurrection of our Lord that men and women began to be convinced as to the truth of our Lord’s teaching and claims.
As I have studied the Gospel accounts more carefully, I have found that the events of the crucifixion made a tremendous impact upon those who witnessed the death of our Savior. Even before the resurrection of our Lord, a scoffing soldier was convinced of our Lord’s innocence, a hardened criminal turned to the dying Jesus and sought his soul’s salvation, and a hostile crowd began to entertain serious misgivings about their part in the crucifixion.
As we turn our thoughts to the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, let us attempt to determine what it was about this event that set it apart from every other death and what changed the minds of many of those present who were previously convinced that Jesus was a malefactor who needed to be blotted out of Jewish history.
No more cruel and inhumane method of execution has ever been devised by man than that of crucifixion. Modern technology may have perfected the art of killing more people faster, but there was no harder way to die than upon a Roman cross.187
Crucifixion was not only conceived of as a fitting penalty for those guilty of heinous crimes, but as an excellent deterrent for any who might consider such acts against society. It was a death that was both painful and public, punitive and preventative.
Normally the crucifixion process was prolonged to up to two or three days. It would typically begin by a preliminary scourging, such as that suffered by our Lord (Matthew 27:26). We are not told how many stripes were meted out, but on the end of the whip were attached small pieces of bone or metal which would tear open the flesh of the victim. Many were unconscious before this ordeal ended; some even died.
If the criminal survived his scourging, he was forced to carry his own cross to the place of the crucifixion by the longest possible route. This served to humiliate the wrongdoer, and to caution those who witnessed his punishment. Once at the site of the execution, the criminal would be fixed to across, of which there were several varieties.188 It was not necessary to raise the individual to any great height, but only that his feet not touch the ground. Commonly, the victim bore a sign depicting the offense for which he was executed. He would carry this around his neck as he made his way to the place of death and the placard would then be fixed to the cross.
The precise cause of death of the one crucified is not known with any degree of certainty. Shock, exposure, starvation, heart failure, and suffocation may all have combined to slowly snuff out the life of the sufferer.
If for some reason the life of the victim lingered longer than the executioners desired, there was a simple and common189 solution. A large wooden mallet was used to break the legs of the dying man and his death would quickly ensue. It seems as though this made it impossible for the person to enhance his breathing by using his legs to relieve the pressure on his diaphragm. If this was the case, the person would quickly suffocate as he could no longer breathe.
Ancient Jewish writings document that some of the women of Jerusalem, out of compassion for the sufferer, prepared a mixture of myrrh and wine.190 This drug would serve to dull the senses of the dying man and ease some of the pain. Our Lord refused to drink any of this drugged wine (Mark 15:23) as He would drink to the full the cup of God’s wrath and the consequences of sin as meted out on the cross.
The physical torture of the cross was only exceeded by the spiritual agony of our Lord’s death. There on the cross He suffered the rejection of men. Golgotha was located close to Jerusalem and probably near a main thoroughfare (John 19:20), along which many would pass. Matthew informs us that many of these passers-by ‘hurled abuse’ at Jesus (Matthew 27:39-40). It is significant that these passers-by were not unaware of the teaching of our Lord. “You who destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40).
The Jewish religious leaders were perhaps the most aggressive in their rejection of Jesus. It is interesting to note that they chose to mock Him, indirectly. Their words of insult were addressed more to the crowds, than to Jesus. “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross and we shall believe in Him. He trusts in God, let Him deliver Him now, if He takes pleasure in Him for He said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (Matthew 27:42-43).
The soldiers, too, joined in this chorus of scoffers (Luke 23:36-37). While they may have known or cared little about the teaching of Jesus, His conduct on the cross did not match their Roman mentality of macho which they thought should be personified in a king. Even the two thieves joined in with their own reproaches (Matthew 27:44).
The jeering of these unbelievers was not, in my estimation, the most painful part of Jesus’ rejection by man. A certain rejection is implied by the apparent absence of those disciples in whom Jesus had invested so much of Himself. It would seem that only John was at the foot of the cross.
And then there were those women who had played such a vital part in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus (Matthew 27:55f.).191 They were standing nearby, agonizing over that fate of Him Whom they had loved and served. The jeering words of the crowd were nowhere on their lips, but the underlying question of the scoffers haunted their hearts. Why was Jesus on the cross? Why didn’t He come down and show Himself to be the Son of God? While they still loved Him, they, too, could not fathom the meaning of the cross.
As deeply as all of these things must have grieved our Lord, the greatest sorrow has not yet been considered. It was not the physical pain which our Lord most dreaded. Neither was it the rejection of men, even those who were His most intimate friends. It was the separation from God which caused our Lord to shrink from the shadow of the cross (Luke 22:39-44).
The words of the Psalmist perfectly conveyed the agony of soul of our Lord as the Suffering Servant: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Psalm 22:1; Mark 15:34). As someone has rightly pointed out, here is the hell our Lord dreaded, but nevertheless experienced for us. Hell is not merely the presence of pain and suffering, but the absence of God in the midst of that pain. This is also true for those who reject Christ as their Savior: “And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
Recently, a friend of mine was preaching on the book of Daniel. He rightly stated that while God may not choose to deliver us from our fiery trials (Daniel 3:16-18), He will be with us in the midst of them (Daniel 3:25). Only once has that not been so, and that was when our Lord bore our sins upon the cross and suffered the wrath and rejection of God in our place. What agony that must have been. The back of the Father, for an eternal moment of time, was turned to the Son.
Christians have sometimes had difficulty in maintaining a balance, in the significance of both our Lord’s physical suffering and death and His spiritual suffering and death. Both are real, both necessary, and both significant.192
Some have stressed the physical sufferings of our Lord to the point where there is almost a mystical devotion to the blood of our Lord. There is a fixation upon the blood, almost distinct from a devotion to our Lord Himself. We are saved by the blood, but it is the blood of the Lamb. Others, in an effort to draw our attention to the spiritual sufferings and death of Christ, have sometimes made statements which have been viewed as heretical. They have played down the actual blood that was shed as though it were of no value. Let us hold firmly to the infinite value of both the physical and the spiritual aspects of our Lord’s sufferings and death.
There was nothing particularly unique about the physical sufferings of our Lord upon the cross, other than the fact that He chose not to have His senses dulled by a drugged wine. His death was unique in that it was one completely undeserved, and one that was spiritual as well as physical.
But there was something about the way that Jesus died that deeply affected those who stood by. A Roman soldier, who no doubt had witnessed countless deaths by crucifixion, was compelled to praise God and to exclaim, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).
A convicted criminal who, only a short time before, was ridiculing the Lord Jesus, now penitently asks to be remembered when He comes into His Kingdom (Luke 23:42). A timid member of the Sanhedrin, who was fearful of others knowing of his faith in Christ, now has the courage to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus (John 19:38). Simon of Cyrene, father of two sons whose names were a household word to the Christian church of later days, may well have credited his conversion to the day he was compelled to bear the cross of our Lord (Mark 15:21).
But perhaps more amazing than the response of all of these men to the death of our Lord, is that of the crowds who consented to His death and then witnessed His execution. “And all the multitudes who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened, began to return, beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48).
Truly, this is an amazing thing! Those who initially were shouting, “Good riddance!” at the foot of the cross, left groaning, “Good grief!” There was in the death of Christ, something so unique and compelling, that even the enemies of our Lord went away deeply disturbed.
One of the distinctives of the death of Christ was the way in which Jesus dealt with His own suffering and execution. It was common for those who were being crucified to curse at the spectators and to spit upon them. I can confidently say that never before had those people beheld a Man who could look into the faces of His persecutors and then pray,193 “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Further, in the midst of His torment, our Lord persisted in placing the needs of others above His own. Seeing His mother grieving at the loss of her oldest son, Jesus instructed John to assume His responsibilities in caring for His mother (John 19:26-27).
The cry of our Lord which repeated the words of Psalm 22:1 have always troubled Christians. Why, many ask, would Jesus say such a thing as this? As already suggested, these words best convey the spiritual anguish of our Lord at the reality of being forsaken of God. More than this, our Lord, in quoting the first words of Psalm 22, identifies Himself not only with this messianic Psalm, but also as the Suffering Servant of the Old Testament Scriptures. He is the fulfillment of all of the prophecies of a Saviour Who would suffer for the sins of His people.
The real question, and that which causes me to marvel, is the failure of the crowds to recognize these words as Scripture. They took the words, “Eli, Eli” (My God, My God) to be a reference to Elijah (Matthew 27:46). Now I realize that the masses in Israel may not have possessed (nor were they able to read) the Old Testament Scriptures in the original Hebrew language. But surely the religious leaders could do so. And yet no one seemed to recognize these words as a scriptural quotation. Why?
I would suggest a couple of distressing possibilities. First of all, they may not have recognized the words of Jesus as Scripture because they were not really searching the Scriptures (cf. Matthew 21:42; 22:29; John 5:39) as they should. They were more students of the scholars than of the Scriptures. That is not far from our own day when we who study the Bible spend more time in the commentaries than in the text of God’s Word.
Another possibility is that while they may have read certain portions of Scripture, they were not intimately familiar with this text. This, in one sense, is amazing for it is one of the great Old Testament texts. On the other hand, it is easy to understand why it would not be a popular text for study and meditation.
This passage was known to be one of the ‘Servant Psalms.’ By this we mean that it was one of the Psalms which portrayed Israel’s Messiah as the One Who would come to suffer and to die for the sins of His people. The Old Testament mind found these ‘servant’ passages hard to square with those which spoke of Messiah as a victorious King (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-11). As a result, I suspect that the ‘suffering servant’ texts were neglected, while the more appealing passages were carefully explored.
We should not be surprised by this, for we have read in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel that the masses wanted to make Jesus their King after He had fed the 5,000. When Jesus spoke of the necessity of His sacrificial death, the crowds wanted no such King and ceased following Him (John 6:60,66). Israel wanted a mighty King, but not a suffering servant.
The final words of our Lord upon the cross were, perhaps, the most impressive. “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Jesus did not die with a whimper, but with a shout. And this was a cry of triumph and victory. “It is finished” is a far cry from “I am finished.” The work of redemption, the work to which He had been appointed, had been fully and finally completed.
It was not just the words which impressed the onlookers, but what attended them. Putting all of the gospel accounts together, one would seem to see this sequence of events: Jesus cried triumphantly, “It is finished!” (John 19:30), followed by “Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46). After this Jesus bowed His head and released His spirit (John 19:30).
Our Lord had said that He would voluntarily lay down His life for the sheep. No man would take His life; He would lay it down. He, too, would take it up again (John 10:17-18). It was much too soon for Jesus to have died (cf. Mark 15:44). The legs of the other two men had to be broken (John 19:32-33). Jesus was dead because He had fulfilled all the Scriptures. He gave up His spirit and died. No one had ever died this way before. “And when the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
In addition to the words and actions of our Lord at His crucifixion, there were also the miraculous events which accompanied His death. These were a divine attestation both to the identification of the Lord Jesus as the Son of God, and to the significance of His death.
There was the supernatural phenomenon of the three-hour period of darkness (Mark 15:30). John had introduced Jesus as the light of the world.
“In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5).
“There was true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:9-11).
Jesus, the light of the world, was rejected. Men would rather live in darkness than to have their evil deeds made evident by the light. When the crowds put Jesus to death, they momentarily extinguished that light and revealed the darkness of their own souls.
The second miracle was the earthquake which occurred simultaneously with the death of our Lord. This quake split rocks and opened many tombs (Matthew 27:51-53). I believe that this miracle prepared the way for yet another sign that would occur at the resurrection. At that time many of the saints who had died were raised and they entered the holy city. This miracle opened the tombs of those who would be raised at the time of our Lord’s resurrection. Implied in this miracle was the truth that the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ was the death of death itself. He was to be the victor over the grave. When He died, death no longer held its deadly power.
Finally, we are told that the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. This veil was no mere sheet hung before the holy of holies; it was said to have been one hand in thickness.194 Nothing less than a miracle could have torn it in this way and at the precise time of our Lord’s death.
In the rending of the veil we are symbolically instructed that the death of Jesus Christ removed the barrier between man and God. The sin which separated us has been paid for by the shedding of His blood. Through His sacrifice men can freely and boldly approach God.
“Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
The Scriptures often point us to the cross of our Lord as an example. It is the supreme example of brotherly love (John 15:13). It is the model which God has provided for the husband who would love his wife (Ephesians 5:25-27). It is the example of godly suffering for the sake of Christ (1 Peter 2:21-25). The cross is likewise symbolic of Christian discipleship (cf. Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34-36). We must not only be willing to die for our faith in Christ, but be willing to die to selfish aims and ambitions. We must be willing to share in the humiliation which the cross symbolizes (cf. Colossians 1:24; Hebrews 12:2; 13:12-13).
Evangelical Christians have sometimes avoided speaking of the cross as an example because of the emphasis which liberal theology places on this point. The error of the liberal is that he stops at the cross as an example, and does not see it also as an expiation. The cross of Calvary was the long-awaited payment in full for the sins of men. The bulls and goats which the Jews offered did not make atonement (cf. Romans 3:21-26); they only succeeded in forestalling the judgment of God until payment was made by the Messiah.
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12).
From the time of man’s creation the penalty for sin was death (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23). From the time of man’s fall, God had promised a provision for men’s sins (Genesis 3:15). The Old Testament sacrificial system was divinely ordained to remind God’s people that ‘without the shedding of blood there was no remission of sins’ (Hebrews 9:22). While the sacrifice of animals did not remove the sins of the people, it was an expression of their faith in the provision which God Himself would provide. The Old Testament prophets often spoke of Him who was to come and achieve salvation through His sacrifice.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living, For the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due? His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:4-12).
The death Christ died was a fulfillment of all the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the Messiah Who would come to suffer and die for the salvation of His people. From the outset of His public ministry, the Lord Jesus came as the Savior of men, the one sacrifice Who would bring salvation to men. As John the Baptist proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Throughout His earthly life, it was the cross that was His ultimate and compelling destiny.195
The work of Christ upon the cross can be partially summarized by three terms: redemption, reconciliation and propitiation. Redemption is the work of Christ focused on the problem of sin. We are bought back from our enslavement to sin by the blood of Christ. Satan can rightfully demand our allegiance until the price of sin has been paid. Reconciliation heals the broken relationship between the sinner and God. Once sin was dealt with, there was no barrier between a man and God. Propitiation deals with the problem of the righteous anger of God aroused by sin. Divine wrath could only be appeased by the demands of justice being met. The death of Christ satisfied the holiness of God.196
The death of Jesus Christ is the touchstone of the Christian faith. It is not enough merely to believe that Jesus Christ was a good man, even the Son of God. One must trust in His work upon the cross as the sole basis and assurance of his acceptance before God and eternal life with Him.
The death of Christ is unique in a number of ways. It perfectly fulfilled countless Old Testament prophecies which described it in minute detail.197 It was unique also because it fulfilled the many predictions our Lord made about His death throughout His earthly ministry. It was unique because no man has ever died like Jesus Christ did. It also was distinctive in that it alone bore the testimony of divine attestation through the miracles which accompanied it.
Perhaps no words better catch the significance of Christ’s crucifixion than those of the apostle Paul: “Behold then the kindness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22).198 On the one hand we must marvel at the love of God which sent our Lord to the cross to die for those who would have Him put to death. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). There is no greater love than that which we see demonstrated on the cross of Calvary.
And yet we must also marvel at the immensity of the payment that was made by our Lord. On the cross we see not only the measure of the love of God, but also of divine judgment. For any who would think that God might wink at sin, let him consider the price that was paid, and by God Himself in the person of the Son. If God did not hesitate to punish His own Son with such severity, what kind of punishment do you and I deserve?
My friend, you cannot come to the cross of our Lord without making a choice. Either you will choose to trust in Christ as your salvation, or you must reject Him and bear the wrath which He bore for you. You must say, as did those who put Him to death, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25).
The cross leaves no room for neutrality. You must trust in Him or take your place among His enemies. May God enable you to look to Him for your salvation.
187 “Klauaner, the Jewish writer, writing of crucifixion says, ‘Crucifixion is the most terrible and cruel death which man has ever devised for taking vengeance on his fellow-men.’ Cicero called it ‘the most cruel and the most horrible torture.’ Tactitus called it ‘a torture only fit for slaves.’ It originated in Persia; and its origin came from the fact that the earth was considered to be sacred to Ormuzd the god, and the criminal was lifted up from it that he might not defile the earth, which was the god’s property. From Persia crucifixion passed to Carthage in North Africa; and it was then from Carthage that Rome learned it, although the Romans kept it exclusively for rebels, runaway slaves, and the lowest type of criminal. It was indeed a punishment which it was illegal to inflict on a Roman citizen.” William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1963), II, pp. 401-402.
“Goguel quotes A. Reville’s description: “It represented the acme of the torturer’s art: atrocious physical sufferings, length of torment, ignominy, the effect on the crowd gathered to witness the long agony of the crucified. Nothing could be more horrible than the sight of this living body, breathing, seeing, hearing, still able to feel, and yet reduced to the state of a corpse by forced immobility and absolute helplessness. We cannot even say that the crucified person writhed in agony, for it was impossible for him to move. Stripped of his clothing, unable even to brush away the flies which fell upon his wounded flesh, already lacerated by the preliminary scourging, exposed to the insults and curses of people who can always find some sickening pleasure in sight of the tortures of others, a feeling which is increased and not diminished by the sight of pain—the cross represented miserable humanity reduced to the last degree of impotence, suffering, and degradation. The penalty of crucifixion combined all that the most ardent tormentor could desire: torture, the pillory, degradation, and certain death, distilled slowly drop by drop. It was an ideal form of torture” (The Life of Jesus, London, 1958, pp. 535f.).” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), pp. 805-806, fn. 44.
188 “There were four forms of the cross used for this ghastly punishment: a plain stake to which the victim was nailed; the Tau cross with the transom below the top—the traditional type on which Jesus was crucified; the crux commnissa, or Greek cross, with four arms of equal length; St. Andrew’s cross, consisting of two beams obliquely crossed.” J.W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1939), p. 596.
189 “Plummer cites from Lactantius: “His executioners did not think it necessary to break His bones, as was their prevailing custom.” If this is accurate, the horror of broken legs was habitually added to that of crucifixion.” Morris, John, p. 818, fn. 84
190 “It is good to know that it was customary for a drug to be offered to the crucified so that some of the pain was mitigated. We read of the custom in Sanh. 43a, ‘When one is led out to execution, he is given a goblet of wine containing a grain of frankincense, in order to benumb his senses, for it is written, Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish and wine unto bitter in soul. And it has also been taught: The noble women in Jerusalem used to donate and bring it.’” (Ioncino edn., pp. 279f.) Ibid., p. 814, fn. 72.
“Mark and Matthew mention by name three of a group of women who were ‘looking on afar off.’ They both mention Mary Magdalene, and omit the mother of Jesus. The woman called by John his mother’s sister seems to be the woman named ‘Salome’ by Mark and the ‘mother of Zebedee’s children’ by Matthew; while Mary the wife of Cleophas would appear to be identical with ‘Mary the mother of James and Joses’ in the Synoptic narratives. Such an identification cannot, however, be regarded as certain.” R.V.G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), p. 215.
192 “John describes the horror that was crucifixion in a single word. As in the case of the scourging, he simply mentions the fact and passes on. Popular piety, both Protestant and Catholic, has often tended to make a great deal of the sufferings of Jesus, to reflect on what was done and to dwell on the anguish He suffered. None of the Gospels does this. The Evangelists record the fact and let it go at that. The death of Jesus for men was their concern. They make no attempt to play on the heartstrings of their readers.” Morris, John, pp. 805-806.
“It may be a challengeable opinion, but I think the Church of God has suffered more than it knows by pictures of the crucifying of Jesus; and sometimes by very honest and well-intentioned sermons, trying to describe the matter on the physical side. I am not denying the tragedy and the pain of it physically, but the physical suffering of Jesus was nothing compared to the deeper fact of that cross.” Ibid., p. 806, fn. 45. Here Morris is quoting Morgan.
194 “This veil, which was the thickness of a palm breadth, was sixty feet long and thirty broad, and separated the Holy and Most Holy Places. Various attempts have been made to explain this strange phenomenon on naturalistic grounds, such as the earthquake, or as Jerome’s comment on the Gospel according to the Hebrews, by the fall of the huge lintel of the Temple broken by the earthquake. But this veil was of such tough fabric and so woven that it could not have been rent in twain by an earthquake or the falling of a lintel. Matthew connects the phenomenon directly with the death of Jesus, calling attention to the fact that it was rent ‘from top to bottom’ by God’s hand, throwing open thus the Most Holy Place to all men.” Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels, p. 604.
Old Testament Prophecy
New Testament Fulfillment