by Derrick G. Jeter
The cross stands at the center of the Christian faith. It also stands at the crossroads of history. The cross is history’s hinge. On that Friday afternoon, when Jesus hung on that cross, human history changed forever because there on the cross humanity and divinity met in intimate fellowship.
Those who stood at the foot of the cross that day didn’t perceive history swing on a hinge. For them the cross stood for nothing but the horrific and humiliating deaths of society’s dregs. So ghastly was the cross to ancient minds, the great Roman statesman and orator, Cicero, couldn’t find the words to describe how vile the act of crucifixion really was. In our own day we don’t normally think about the cross with such lofty notions of it being the hinge of history. Nor do we think of the cross as an appalling instrument of death. We have sanitized the cross; it is an object to adorn our necks, our wall, and our windows. So antiseptic is the cross to modern men and women it has become virtually meaningless. Perhaps if we decorated our homes and ourselves with images of a guillotine, a needle, or an electric chair we might capture some understanding of how offensive the cross really was.
More importantly, however, our sterilized view of the cross has had a sterilizing effect on our view of sin. Our sin rarely causes us horror or disgust; we don’t hate it as we should—as God does. Perhaps we’ve forgotten, or maybe we’ve never know, just what it cost Jesus to redeem us from the slavery of sin and the penalty of death. In short, we do not find our sin revolting because we do not find the cross revolting. But it was and is. The cross was cruel and vile and ugly . . . but in the end, beautiful.
Jewish and Roman Views of Crucifixion
If words failed the great and eloquent Cicero when it came to describing the cruelty of the cross, words didn’t fail God—crucifixion was a sign of His curse. Paul wrote, “Christ redeems us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). Paul was paraphrasing Deuteronomy 21:22–23, which reads: “If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.”
One reason why the crucified received a divine curse was because such a death was dehumanizing. For the Romans—who prized four elements when it came to executing their enemies: pitiless agony, lingering death, public spectacle, and absolute humiliation—the cross was the perfect instrument of creative cruelty.
This would be true of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Golgotha: 9:00 am–12:00 pm
After Jesus’s arrest, a guilty verdict following three Jewish and trumped-up trials, and mockery by Herod, Jesus came before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, a second time. Pilate had Jesus scourged—flogged with a bone or metal encrusted whip—and then handed off to an exactor mortis, a Roman centurion schooled in the art of death, for crucifixion.
The centurion took Jesus and stripped Him of the purple robe the soldiers had placed on His back, opening the wounds from the scourging where the blood had already begun to coagulate. Placing His own clothes on Him, the exator mortis took a rough-hewn board and wrote in chalk a sign, a titulus, with Jesus’s crime. The titulus would either be hung around Jesus’s neck or carried in front of Him by a solider on their procession to the hill of crucifixion; later it would be attached to the cross above Jesus’s head for all to read. Then the exactor mortis laid across Jesus’s raw and oozing shoulders the instrument of His death. Jesus didn’t carry the entire cross, which would have weighted between 250 and 300 pounds; He carried the crossbeam or patibulum across the nape of his neck, balanced on His shoulders, and fixed with ropes to His outstretched arms. The vertical beam, the stipes, awaited Him at the place of execution, usually along a main crossroad or on a hill so that passersby could gawk and hurl curses.
With the titulus around Jesus’s neck and the patibulum tied to His shoulders, soldiers formed a square around Jesus and they began the arduous and humiliating march through the constricted Passover-packed streets of Jerusalem. Winding through the tight and uneven paved streets from the Praetorium to Golgotha—the Place of the Skull—Jesus was no longer able to bear up under the weight of the beam. With His hands tied to the crossbeam He wasn’t able to break His fall without His face smashing into the pavement. Unable to go any further, the soldiers conscript a man from the crowd, Simon from Cyrene, to carry the patibulum the rest of the way. A large crowd followed, some cursing and spitting, some weeping, forming a macabre parade.
Outside the city walls, the parade of death reached the Place of the Skull and the open grave which would cradle Jesus’s body. Ascending the hill, the soldiers took the patibulum from Simon and laid it on the ground. The soldiers then either affixed the crossbeam to the stipes before nailing Jesus to the cross, in which case the entire cross and Jesus would be pulled up and dropped into a hole in the ground. Or they nailed Jesus to the crossbeam and hoisted Him up, hanging Him by His hands until the patibulum slid into the already upright stipes. In either case, Jesus was stripped naked once again, re-opening His wounded back, and thrown to the ground; His arms stretched out, slightly bent, palms facing upward. Jesus refused the sour wine, used as a mild sedative, so a soldier tied His arm down or knelt on it, took a five- to seven-inch long square nail and drove it violently through Jesus’s wrists until it bit fast and deep into the patibulum. Severing the median nerve, hot, searing pain, like lightning bolts, shot up Jesus’s arm, causing the muscles in His hand and arm to suddenly go taut. With one wrist firmly fixed to the crossbeam another soldier nailed the other wrist in place, multiplying the agony. The slightest breeze or the touch of a feather would send torturous pains shooting through Jesus’s arms and hands. And when they dropped His cross into the ground with a bone jarring thud, or pulled Him up, dangling His whole body weight from the wrists, the pain must have been beyond human description.
Next, came the nailing of Jesus’s feet. A solider drew Jesus’s legs up slightly, to bend His knees, crossed one foot over the other, placed them flat against the stipes, and with one nail driven through the arch of the foot Jesus was now securely fastened to the cross. Searing pain shot through His legs, seizing His muscles. With their gruesome work done, a soldier nailed the titulus above Jesus’s head, which read in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek: “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). The soldiers lifted Him up, guided the cross into the hole and let it fall to the bottom with a low thump, pulling Him against the nails and causing His body to writhe in pain. Driving wedges between the beam and the sides of the hole, Jesus now hung upright on His cross—and Jesus prayed: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
It was just another day on crucifixion detail for the soldiers. Sometime before dark they would break the legs of the condemned, haul the body down, and prepare the nails, beams, and hole for another crucifixion. But until dark came they would pass the time gambling for Jesus’s clothing.
Death on a cross was a long and arduous affair. Depending on the severity of scourging or whether ropes or nails were used to secure the criminal to the cross, it could take three or four hours to three or four days to die. Victims usually died from asphyxiation. To inhale, the crucified man would push down on his nailed feet and breath for a second or two, or until the pain became unbearable, and then would slump down, placing his weight on his wrists, and compressing his chest. If the Romans wanted to be particularly cruel, to extend the crucified man’s suffering, they would place a sedile—a saddle-like protruding piece of wood—midway down the stipes so the victim could just barely sit and ease the pain in his legs and arms. But he wouldn’t be able to breath, so up he would push with his feet again, rubbing his already mangled back and shoulders against the splinter-filled beam. And so it would go, for hours and hours . . . up to breath and down to relieve the pain in his legs and feet, until the victim became too exhausted and dehydrated to continue. Eventually, the crucified man would be able to gasp in air, but no longer able to exhale, slowly suffocating himself.
To add to the torture, insects would often light upon crucified victims and borrow into open wounds, ears, and noses, and into the corners of the eyes. Birds of prey would land on the cross or the crucified person and peek at the wounds or the eyes. And soldiers would do little to ease the victims torment.
Shortly after nine o’clock, Jesus hung a few feet off the ground, between two accomplices of the murderer Barabbas. In front of Him there stood a taunting crowd, insulting Him.
Those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads, and saying, “Ha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes, were mocking Him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe!” (Mark 15:29–32).
As the crowds mocked, so too did one of the criminals: “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39). However, through the suffering, one of the condemned men suddenly understood who Jesus was:
But the [one] answered, and rebuking [the other] said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” (23:40–42).
Turning to this man, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (23:43).
Also there that day was His mother, Mary, and a few other women, and His beloved disciple John—all the other disciples had fled in fear and abandoned Him. Jesus, seeing His mother, said to her, “Woman, behold your son!” (John 19:26)—referring to John. And to John He said, “Behold, your mother!” (19:27).
Tetelestai: 12:00 pm–3:00 pm
Three hours into His torturous ordeal, at midday, when the sun should have been at its highest and brightest, the sky suddenly became eerily dark. For three hours, from noon until three o’clock, darkness hung heavy in the air. For three hours Jesus hung on His cross—suspended between heaven and earth, as the darkness of human sin was being paid for by the Light of the World. For three hours nothing could be heard but the gasping sounds of God dying.
Then suddenly the silence and darkness was broken by His anguished prayer: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani—My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). At that moment, and in that howl, the eternal fellowship between Father and Son was severed. From eternity past the Son had only known an unbroken loving relationship with the Father, but now the perfect Son had become sin and the Father poured out His dreadful wrath and judgment; and all for the sake of us, that “we might become the righteousness of God” in Jesus’s death (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Many who stood around misunderstood what the cracked and parched vocal cords said. “This man is calling for Elijah” (Matthew 27:47). Jesus, knowing that His mission on earth was now complete, whispered: “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). Someone dipped a hyssop branch with a sponge on the end of it into a jar of sour wine and put it to Jesus’s mouth for Him to suck the liquid. But the crowd angrily rebuked this Good Samaritan: “Let’s us see whether Elijah will come to save Him” (Matthew 27:48–49).
Elijah would not come to save Him, for Jesus had come for this very purpose—to save sinful humanity. Pushing down on His already mangled feet, Jesus gasped for one last earthly breath and said: “Tetelestai!”—“It is finished!” (John 19:30). That was it; the debt of human sin was paid in full. And then He cried out a final prayer: “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46). And with that Jesus gave up His spirit and died.
In that second the earth revolted at the death of its Creator and a great earthquake shook Jerusalem. And the temple veil, separating sinful humanity from a holy God, was torn in two. No longer would mankind have to take their sacrifices to the temple for a priest to offer it on their behalf for the forgiveness of sin. Free and unfettered access to God had been bought by Jesus’s death.
Jesus’s crucifixion was not unique from the thousands of men who were crucified before and after Him. But there was nothing ordinary about Jesus death. When He gave up His spirit, the centurion, the exator mortis, in charge of the crucifixions that day, in fright testified: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).
Is it any wonder then that Jesus’s death on the cross was a stone of stumbling to Jews and “foolishness” to Romans (1 Corinthians 1:23)? But lest we think the crucifixion of Jesus is something far removed from us, we should pause and contemplate this truth: this symbol of cruelty and death was beyond painful and humiliating; it was excruciating and degrading—and Jesus, to save you and I from the vileness of our sin, freely chose this.