THE PASSION OF CHRIST #2
Our text this morning is from Matthew’s gospel, the 27th chapter beginning with verse 32. Matthew writes, “As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. 33And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. 36Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. 37And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." 38Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. 39And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." 41So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42"He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, 'I am the Son of God.' " 44And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
45Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 47And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, "This man is calling Elijah." 48And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him." 50And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.”
One of the striking aspects of the accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus recorded in the gospels is how incredibly little detail is recorded about the way Jesus was put to death. The passage from Matthew illustrates that. In verse 25 Matthew simply says, “When they had crucified him…” Matthew doesn’t say anything to explain the manner in which Jesus died. Mark, like Matthew simply mentions the way Jesus died—there is no detail given. Even Luke the physician who typically gives a fair amount of detail when discussing topics related to the human body says simply in 23:33, “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” John’s treatment is no more detailed. He records, “There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.”
If you read these texts without any understanding of the bible or Ancient Near Eastern history, you would have many questions about just how Jesus died. Why does the Bible say almost nothing in detail about what happened to Jesus on Golgotha? One of the chief reasons is surely because everyone to whom the four gospels were addressed, not only knew what crucifixion was, they had almost certainly personally witnessed people being crucified. Crucifixion was done in very public places as a warning to would-be criminals and it was done with shameful frequency in the Roman Empire. There was simply no need for the gospel writers to belabor the details about something so grisly and which was already well known to their readers. A reason we must certainly NOT give for why so little is said in the gospels about Christ’s crucifixion is because the method by which Jesus died was unimportant. We must NOT say that. In fact the way in which Jesus died was/is of vital importance—the mode of the execution of Jesus lies near the heart of God’s redemptive plan. Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ helps us see something of the brutality of this method of execution. This morning we want to ask WHY did Jesus have to die in this particular manner—by crucifixion? But before we do that, we need to review what was involved in crucifixion. To do this, I want to read an extended section on this as gospel scholar Bob Stein records in his book, Jesus the Messiah. For those who have seen the movie, you will note from this accurate account that Mel Gibson, though largely faithful to the passion events, took a few artistic liberties with the depiction of Christ’s crucifixion.
Stein writes, “The term “crucifixion” can refer to several forms of capital punishment. There was not always a clear distinction made between the crucifixion of a victim who was alive and the public display of a corpse of a person who had been put to death in another manner. Crucifixion can also refer to the impaling of a person on a stake. Such a crucifixion would generally bring instantaneous death. Such a death, however, did not serve well the tastes of those who preferred death to be slow and painful. The better-known forms of crucifixion involved hanging a person on a cross of some kind. This form of crucifixion goes back at least to the seventh century B.C. and was made popular by Alexander the Great.
As the Roman Empire spread eastward, it soon made use of this form of punishment. Among the Romans, crucifixion was a form of punishment for the lower classes…Roman citizens were spared this form of execution. As a result, tradition tells us that whereas Peter was martyred by crucifixion, Paul, being a Roman citizen, was beheaded…Crucifixion remained the primary form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire until A.D. 337, when Constantine banned it.
The method of attachment to the cross varied. Tying and nailing the victim were the most common. Since this did not affect any vital, internal organs, death was slow. After being fastened to the crossbeam, the victim was then lifted up with it as the crossbeam was raised by forked poles. The crossbeam was then inserted in a notch in the vertical pole and secured. John 20:2 makes clear that Jesus’ hands were nailed to the cross. Luke 24:39 suggests that his feet may have been as well. In actuality the nails were driven not through the palms of the hands but through the wrists, for the hands would not be able to support the weight of the victim…. The nails were generally driven between the two major bones in the wrists…”
“If the victim was supported only by the nails, he tended to die more quickly than the torturers wanted. As a result, they sometimes placed a footrest…at the bottom and/or a block of wood to support the buttocks. Crucifixion was sometimes described as “sitting on the cross.” Although this allowed some relief for the body, it was not done as an act of kindness or mercy but as a means of prolonging the agony.” In this, we see how utterly sadistic crucifixion is. The support for the feet prolonged death because the victim of crucifixion died in most cases from asphyxiation caused because the breathing apparatus tended to collapse in on itself given the stress on the lungs caused by the pressure placed on them with the body in a crucified position. In order to breath well, the victim found it necessary to straighten their body out by pushing up on their feet, which in Jesus’ case were fastened with nails. Do you hear how crucifixion uses a person’s strongest nature drive—their desire for self-preservation—to prolong the agony. The crucified often spent days making the horrible choice whether to breath which meant the agony of placing pressure on their nail pierced feet or asphyxiate. Again and again their drive for self-preservation would send them gasping for one more breath at the cost of exquisite pain to their feet. This horrific pattern was repeated almost endlessly until they finally had no more strength to support themselves enough to take in life-sustaining oxygen or until their legs were broken, preventing them from finding the support they needed to breath.
Stein continues, “A great deal has been written concerning the “cause” of Jesus’ death. Numerous medical doctors have sought to analyze the Gospel accounts, often treating them as if they were they were carefully written medical reports preserved for a later scientific community. The most commonly described cause of death is asphyxiation…Bodily exhaustion, no doubt, also played a role.” Ultimately, we know that Jesus did not die from any of this. Jesus says of his life in John 10:18, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father." The cross was not the cause of death per se for Christ. He surrendered his spirit to his Father of his own free will.
Stein continues, “Crucifixion is one of the most abominable forms of torture and execution that the world has ever seen. It is so horrible that only Christians speak positively of it, and that is only because of the redemption Jesus achieved by means of it…Crucifixion involves all that a sadistic and evil torturer could want. The Roman poet Cicero referred to it as “the most cruel and most hideous of tortures” and said that “the very name `cross’ should not only be far from the body of a Roman citizen, but also from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears.’
Crucifixion involved lengthy torment. In some cases the victim would live for days. Flies and insects would eat away at the lacerated back and wounded hands and feet. One ancient writer referred to the victims of crucifixion as “food for birds of prey and grim pickings for dogs,” for birds and animals would begin to feed on them even before they had died. It involved great agony, for the victim found no respite from his pain. There was nakedness and shame and the insults of those who seem always to find a sickening delight in the pain and torment of others. There was the feeling of absolute helplessness. Slowly, very slowly, the living corpse awaited the blessing of death. But it would not come until as much pain and suffering were extracted from the victim as possible. Almost any modern form of capital punishment looks amazingly “gracious” when compared to crucifixion.”
Let me assure you, the reason I have included this text in the message is not to tantalize or emotionally manipulate anyone. This information, which was universally known in first century Palestine, is profitable for us to more fully appreciate the death of Jesus. The question leading us into a deeper understanding of Jesus death and its significance for us is, Of all the ways that Jesus could have been put to death, why did God choose this utterly barbaric form of execution for his Son to die? The answers to that question bring us close to the heart of God’s redemptive plan
Today, we will focus on four reasons why God chose the tortuous agony of crucifixion for his Son’s death. The first and perhaps the most basic reason Jesus had to be placed on a cross to die is to fulfill Old Testament prophecies. There are many prophecies pointing to the need for the Messiah, God’s suffering servant to die as a sacrifice but there are three that specifically prophecy the Messiah would die in the manner Jesus did. John, in his gospel tells the story of the death of Christ in chapter 19. In verse 33, after Jesus had given up his spirit, John records, “But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water… 36For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: "Not one of his bones will be broken." 37And again another Scripture says, "They will look on him whom they have pierced." John quotes two texts that came to be known as Messianic. He first references Psalm 34:20, which indicates the Messiah would die with no broken bones. That eliminates stoning (the primary Jewish way of execution), as that would have almost certainly involved breaking bones. John also quotes Zechariah 12:10 which foretells that the Savior would be pierced as he was here by the Roman soldier.
Psalm 22:16, another messianic text says, “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet--” Remarkably, perhaps three hundred years before crucifixion had even been conceived of, much less practiced, David here prophetically speaks of the piercing seen in the cross of Christ. A final prophecy pointing to the death of the Messiah by crucifixion is in Isaiah 53:5. The prophet writes, “But he was pierced for our transgressions…” Again, we see the necessity of a death by piercing mandated by Old Testament scriptures. Jesus had to die by crucifixion in order to fulfill the Scriptures.
A second reason why Jesus had to die in this barbarous manner is to be accursed for our sin. Two biblical texts treat this. The first is Deuteronomy 21:22-23 which says, “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” To be hung on a tree (and crucifixion was equated with this) indicated the presence of God’s curse. Paul, in the New Testament takes this text and applies it to the crucifixion of Christ. In Galatians 3:10-13 he says, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them." 11Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith." 12But the law is not of faith, rather "The one who does them shall live by them." 13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree."
In verse 10 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26 where God, as one of the several curses for breaking the covenant relationship with him, pronounces a curse on all who do not fully perform the stipulations of the covenant, the law. For a sinful people who could NOT perform the law this meant that the law brought a curse on all who tried and failed to keep it. This is what Paul calls the “curse of the law.” To be cursed by God means that you are placed under his holy judgment. That means if you fail to fully perform God’s law as a Jew or as a Gentile fail to perform the law as it is written in your heart, you are under the curse of God—the sure promise of his judgment. Under the law, hanging a person on a tree didn’t bring God’s curse, it merely indicated God had already cursed the person for their sin. Their hanging on a tree graphically illustrated to all that God had cut off them off. When Jesus took our law-breaking sin upon himself, he became accursed of God—temporarily cut off from God. This is what happened on the cross and that is powerfully seen in Jesus crying out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God did forsake Jesus—he cut him off from himself until the penalty for our curse-bringing sin had been fully paid for. His body hanging from the wooden cross (the “tree”) powerfully communicated to all that this man was accursed of God and indeed, he was for our sake. Jesus had to hang on a “tree” to indicate that he had indeed borne for us the curse of our sin, rescuing us from the worst of all possible fates—being cut off from God in eternal judgment.
A third reason Christ had to die by crucifixion is to magnify his humility as the Suffering Servant Messiah. As the quote from Bob Stein informs us, crucifixion was reserved for the lower classes. If you were a Roman citizen, irrespective of the heinousness of your crime, you would not have been subjected to crucifixion. Thus Jesus, who was born in a stable, placed in a manger and who as an adult “has no place to lay his head” died as he had been born and as he had lived—among the rabble. There’s an old saying, “Jesus didn’t die on a communion table between two brass sticks but on a garbage dump between two thieves.” Jesus’ death was an appropriate end to a life lived in humility. In Philippians 2:7-8 Paul sums it up when he says Christ, “…made himself nothing, taking the very form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Paul relays the downward progression of Christ’s humility. First he humbled himself by being found in human likeness, then he became obedient to the point of experiencing death as a human and the final and most stark humiliation was that the Son of God would die, shamed, naked and accursed, his body stuck to a wooden cross. His point is to show that Christ, the Lord of Glory is our example of a humble Servant who sunk to the lowest depths of humiliation imaginable in obedience to his Father. Jesus Christ’s death on a cross was necessary to magnify his humility as the Suffering Servant of God and to leave a powerful example of what should mark the life of his followers, humble service to God and others.
A fourth reason crucifixion was necessary for the death of Christ is to graphically depict for us the hideous evil of sin. We mentioned this last week, but it bears repeating. One of the great weaknesses in most of our lives is we fail to see with any clarity just how awful, how dreadful, how heinous, how utterly satanic our sin is to God. How ugly, how wicked, how repulsive is sin? The answer is graphically displayed to us in the crucifixion of Christ. Here’s what the destructive power of sin does—sin takes the spotless Lamb of God before whom sinless angels in heaven veiled their faces—the very radiance of the glory of God. Sin takes that indescribably glorious, divine Being and transforms him into a bloody, agonized mass of flesh stuck to a cross; bearing the spit of liars, hypocrites and condemned criminals.
That’s what sin does! That’s how wicked sin is—that’s what comes out of our mouths and hearts. That malodorous, spiritually lethal power originating from the deepest pit of hell necessitated the cross. The next time you feel the need to experience some of the wickedness of your sin—turn to Isaiah six and spend some time thinking about the glory of Christ, high and lifted up. When you have that firmly embedded in your mind, next turn your mind to the horrors of Christ, high and lifted up on the cross as we read about them earlier. That’s what sin does—that’s how wicked our sin is to God and should be to us as well.
The cross and the torture Jesus endured there as One who became sin for us also shows us the tortuous effect sin has on us. Sin doesn’t instantly kill people, it slowly tortures them—it slowly, persistently drains away their joy. It guts them of their dignity as people created in God’s image. It reduces them to living like animals controlled only by their appetites and drives. It siphons off their hope, repeatedly and cruelly promising great things but always disappointing in the end. It slowly tortures people in this life and in the next it brings unending anguish in the torment of hell. Christ on the cross of Christ bearing sin upon himself powerfully points to the tortuous effects of sin in this life and the next.
If you are here today and you have not placed your trust in Christ. If you have not repented of your sin and turned to Christ who paid the penalty for sin on the cross—who received the curse of God’s judgment for sin—who died that we might live lives of joy and peace and enjoy eternal pleasures with God—do that today. Come to Christ, humbly admit you’re a sinner and ask him to save you from the penalty of your sin. Ask God to apply the payment Christ made for sin to your account. Ask him to come into your life and be your Savior and Lord. Stop the tortuous effects of unforgiven sin in your life and believe on the name of the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of your sin—for the right standing you need before God that only He can give you. Otherwise, your sin will continue to eat away your soul bringing emptiness and disappointment in this life and in the next life will cause you to pay the penalty for your sin in the eternal torment of hell. Come to Christ today.
Page last modified on 3/14/2004
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