So many people view Jesus’ death on the cross at Calvary through the lens of Roman crucifixion. It’s as if that suffering alone defines Christ’s acceptance of becoming the Lamb of God and the sacrificial offering for the sin of all mankind. It is nothing of the sort. It is only the degrading container, the outward sign of the real event going on underneath that already oppressive suffering.
Crucifixion was not unique. It was common practice in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus. As a punishment, it was reserved for those the empire wanted to make an example of. It forced the condemned to endure the most painful and degrading death possible. On average, it took anywhere from 6 hours (how long Jesus lived) to 4 days for a person to die, depending on how much they wanted to live and their overall health at the start of the torture. Death during crucifixion comes from asphyxiation, when the person can no longer or wants to no longer push up their body weight off their arms so they can breathe, the pain in their feet from being nailed to the vertical post not withstanding. The only thing keeping a crucified person alive was their willingness to lift themselves to get another breath.
So, several things are obvious from the method of execution of Jesus:
- The execution was to be public and easily visible by anyone who cared to look.
- The Hebrew leaders wanted to make an example of him by killing him in the most degrading way possible.
- They wanted it to take a long time, which both extended the suffering and the public spectacle.
- Neither the Romans or the Hebrew leaders would offer him any mercy. The only limit would be sunset and the needs of the oncoming Sabbath but by then Jesus was dead.
Even after taking all of that into account, what actually happened that day on Golgotha?
The three men crucified that day were put on their crosses around 9 am. Late in the afternoon, the two criminals on either side of Jesus were still very much alive when the order was given to break their legs. They had to speed up their deaths due the approaching sunset, which would usher in the Passover Sabbath and its concerns over-rid everything else. So, orders were given and the Roman soldiers carried them out. However, Jesus was already dead, and had been for some time as proven by the separate blood and water that flowed from the wound the soldier put in his side with his spear. The heaver platelets and lighter plasma had already separated, which begins after death as the blood no longer flows and begins to accumulate, allowing the heavier platelets to slowly sink leaving the lighter plasma at the top. This settling process is not instantaneous and can take several hours. with this in mind, the question we need to ask is, was it the crucifixion itself that killed Jesus or was it something else that killed him before the cross could take him? Let’s look at the account. It is revealing.
All four of the Gospels tell the story and several important things stand out.
Jesus was lucid and spoke to those around him throughout the whole ordeal.
He warned the women of Jerusalem:
27Following Him was a large crowd of the people, including women who were mourning and wailing for Him. 28But Jesus, turning toward them, said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that have not given birth, and the breasts that have never nursed.’ 30Then they will begin TO SAY TO THE MOUNTAINS, ‘FALL ON US!’ AND TO THE HILLS, ‘COVER US!’ 31For if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
Jesus forgave the men crucifying him:
34And Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus dialoged with the thieves who were crucified with him:
39One of the criminals who had been hanged [on a cross beside Him] kept hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us [from death]!” 40But the other one rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41We are suffering justly, because we are getting what we deserve for what we have done; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” 42And he was saying, “Jesus, [please] remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” 43Jesus said to him, “I assure you and most solemnly say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
He spoke to his mother and the Apostle John:
26So Jesus, seeing His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing near, said to His mother, “woman, look, [here is] your son!” 27Then He said to the disciple (John), “Look! [here is] your mother [protect and provide for her]!” From that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”
All of this took place during the march to Golgotha and the first three hours of the crucifixion.
Then things change.
Jesus’ focus shifts from those around him to his mission, prepared for him from the before foundation of the world: The Lamb slain for the redemption of sin. The changes were not just in Jesus but in the whole world around him. The whole world reacted with darkness for three hours. This is well attested in the writings of the time (HT Vox Day). The following is taken from the History of Latter Han Dynasty, Volume 1, Chronicles of Emperor Guang Wu, 7th year: “Summer, fourth month [of the year], on the day of Ren Wu, the imperial edict reads, “Yin and Yang have mistakenly switched, and the sun and moon were eclipsed. The sins of all the people are now on one man. Pardon is proclaimed to all under heaven.” Another Chinese source, History of Latter Han, Annals, No. 18, Gui Hai says: “Eclipse on the day of Gui Hai, Man from Heaven died”. I point out these Chinese sources since they are well attested and the writers had no direct knowledge whatsoever of what had happened in Jerusalem and I am sure they didn’t care. There are many other sources at the above link.
In Jerusalem itself, serious events were happening. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians “5:21For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Creation reacted and darkness spread upon the land for three hours in the middle of the day as the real event, the atonement for sin, was taking place.
Mark 15:33When the sixth hour (noon) came, darkness covered the whole land until the ninth hour (3:00 p.m.).
For three hours the price of redemption was played out both in creation and in the person of Jesus, the Son of God, the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world. This is where the true cost was paid, the true pain was experience. It is also where to me one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian faith is revealed – the cohesiveness of the Trinity, the eternal bond between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is somehow broken. Jesus, himself, tells us this happened.
34And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “ELOI, ELOI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” –which is translated, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?”
This is the true price of the cross, of our redemption, of the choice that the Son made in eternity, accepted in the garden, and paid on the cross…knowing the reality of being forsaken due to sin, of being utterly and completely alone as the debt was paid. He experienced the totality of hell for all who were ever born, for every sin they would ever commit. The enormity of the weight he bore for those three hours is beyond belief. But he did bear it. We know he did, because at the end he said:
John 19:28After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I thirst!” 29Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. 30So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.
He completed the task; he fulfilled his mission and to put an exclamation point on it all he proclaims the work “finished”! And then comes an important point. Crucifixion did not kill him. He bowed his head; he gave up his spirit. It was his choice, not the executioner’s.
So, by thinking the crucifixion was the great agony of the cross, the price of our redemption, you miss the real drama, the real truth of the event. As the Chinese Emperor’s chronicles proclaim, “The sins of all the people are now on one man.” Jesus gave up his life for our sin, to redeem its cost, to nullify its effects. Sin was the true agony that he bore. That is what took his life, a life he willingly laid down. Crucifixion was just the outward sign, the bloodletting. The real battle was over sin. I hope now you see that and understand its true cost.