There was no death more terrible than by way of crucifixion. Even the Romans trembled by the thought and found it despicable. No Roman citizen could be crucified. For a Roman, execution was mostly beheading or forced suicide by drinking poison. Crucifixion was for slaves and criminals. The cross was originally a Persian method of execution. They argued that a criminal could not defile the earth while dying and should be lifted up. The Carthaginians in North Africa took it over from the Persians. Through them it came to Rome.
Jesus died the death most dreaded in the ancient world.
Execution took place immediately after a verdict was pronounced. The convicted had to carry his own cross. After scourging it was a bloody procession of lashing and mocking to get the staggering prisoner to the place of execution. In front of him was a soldier with a placard stating his crime. He was led through as many streets as possible to serve as a warning to all watching, but also possible leniency. If there were any person who could bear witness in the prisoner’s favour, he was allowed to come forward. If so, the procession stopped and the trial was repeated. Nobody came when Jesus walked the Via Dolorosa.
In Jerusalem the place of execution was called the Place of the Skull (Hebrew = Golgotha). Calvary is Latin. A criminal could not die in the city so it was outside the city walls.
The name could have come from the shape of the hill as a skull, but others suggest that the Romans never buried the body of the criminal. They simply let it lie on a “rubbish” heap of bodies until it rotted away. Death by crucifixion could last for days. The Jews, however, buried a body by nightfall. They would never have a place for dead bodies just outside the city walls.
Bleeding, in shock of the cruel beating, Jesus carried His cross to Calvary.
The placard for the cross was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. They were the three great nations of the ancient world at the time. The culmination of their talents could have been great. The Romans taught law and good government, the Greeks taught philosophy and art and the Hebrews had access to the one true God.
Jesus was the supreme beauty and highest thought of God. In him was the law of God and the kingdom of God. In him was the very image of God. All the world’s seekings and strivings found their consummation in him. It was symbolic that the three great languages of the world should call him king. [William Barclay]
The inscription on the cross was to irritate the Jews. Pilate did it on purpose. The Jewish leaders asked him to remove it and he refused saying: What I have written, I have written. Stubborn about his words, he yielded to them condemning an innocent man to death.
The soldiers received the clothes of the victim. Crucifixion needed four soldiers. There were probably five items – shoes, turban, belt, tunic and outer robe. They threw a dice to divide the items and the outer tunic was left. It was seamless, woven in one piece and they could not cut it in a way that each one would have something of value. They probably carried dice with them to while away the hours below a cross waiting for death. They had to guard the body lest any of the friends would cut Him down. The soldiers could have been intoxicated. Usually they had alcohol with them to dull their senses in carrying out such cruelty.
Their indifference to the agony of the dying man is shocking.
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Behold and see
If there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
Which has been brought on me,
Which the Lord has inflicted
In the day of His fierce anger.(Lamentations 1:12)
The tunic woven in one piece was described exactly as the one the High Priest wore. The function of the High Priest was to be the connection of the people to God. The Latin for priest is Pontifex, which means bridge-builder. This is exactly what the cross did. Jesus was the perfect High Priest, the bridge-builder to the presence of God.
The dividing of His clothes is foretold in Psalms 22:18.
There were four women at the cross. Jesus’ mother Mary, her sister, Salome, Mary, the wife of Clopas and Mary of Magdala. It was always dangerous to be associated to anybody on the wrong side of Roman authority. Their love overcame their fear. They had to be with Him, in His presence until He died.
His mother’s presence was natural and expected, although risky. There was Mary’s sister, Salome, the mother of James and John (Mark 15:40; Matthew 27:56). She is the one who asked about her son’s positions in the Kingdom and received a correction from Jesus. Even after being reprimanded by Jesus, she is here at the cross, which demonstrates His perfect love in correction.
Mary of Magdala is the woman mentioned in Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2. Jesus cast out seven devils from her. He rescued her life. The third Mary, wife of Clopas, is unknown and only mentioned in John.
In a beautiful concern for the immediate future Jesus committed the care of His mother to John, his cousin and trusted disciple. As her eldest son He cared for her and He never failed in His duty as a son.
John’s presence also speaks of love that overcomes fear. He took a great risk to join the woman and be present at a time when most other criminals would be completely alone. Jesus was no ordinary criminal.
Jesus expressed His thirst. It emphasizes the agony of the cross. Many people believed Jesus to be a phantom-like godly figure. Here John underlines His humanness. He felt the pain of the cross. Jesus became fully man to redeem man.
In Psalms 69:21 the thirst of Jesus and the vinegar drink were foretold: They also gave me gall for my food,and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
The other Gospels tell of Jesus dying with a great shout on His lips. They do not say the words (Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46). John tells us what He said. He said these words not in weary defeat, but in a voice one does not expect from a dying man.
The words: it is finished is one word in Greek = tetelestai. It also means great shout. He died when the price was paid and God said enough. He leaned back His head and gave up His spirit as if He rested after the work is done.
The Romans left a body on a cross for days. After they have taken the body down, it would be left to the crows and dogs get rid of it. The Jews buried by nightfall (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
In this case the next day was the Sabbath. The burial had to take place before sunset. Every so often the Roman soldiers finished a criminal off by smashing their limbs. It was done to the two criminals crucified with Jesus, but Jesus was already dead. In Numbers 9:12 it is said that not one bone of body of the Passover lamb shall be broken.
To make sure that Jesus was dead, a soldier drove a spear into His side and out flowed water and blood. It was a sure sign of death but also the sign of a very sick man. He literally took our sickness on Him. Another prophecy was fulfilled: They look on him whom they have pierced. (Zechariah 12:10)
It is said by some commentators that Jesus died of a broken heart. When the heart ruptures the blood mingles with the fluid of the membrane around the heart. The spear was thrusted towards the heart. Blood and water flowed.
John was the eyewitness to all this. It is a symbol of water-baptism and the blood that saves.
The disciples were poor and a proper burial was expensive. Two men came forward.
Joseph of Arimathaea was a member of the Sanhedrin and a disciple of Jesus. He kept his discipleship secret but now came forward. Nicodemus was the nightly visitor of Jesus (John 3), a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin.
It is said that both of them were left out of the meeting with the High Priest when the nightly trial was conducted. The Sanhedrin never met at night. The High Priest could therefore say it was out of the ordinary and for some members only. He probably realized he would face opposition from Nicodemus and Joseph. The dark workings of the Jewish council had to take place under the cover of darkness.
Joseph and Nicodemus stepped out boldly. Joseph fearlessly approached the Romans for the body of Jesus. In His death he drew men unto Him just as He prophesied (John 12:32).
Two prominent leaders cast their hesitation and reputation aside and honoured Jesus with their leadership and wealth.
How often does death confront with the deep issues of life? People get caught up in everyday life with little regard to the profound questions of truth, humanity and life after death. Death itself compels the mind to focus on more than the superficial.
Death is an intimate experience into the unseen. Jesus stepped into the unseen from where He came. Three days…