John Lesson 45 - Death by Crucifixion
Jesus Christ was not nailed to the cross so that you could add Him to your self-righteous list of church attendances, donations, good deeds, and all the other gods you hope will take you to heaven! He hung on the cross as your substitute -- bearing the wrath of God in your place. Your list isn't long enough to atone for your sin. Only Christ can do that.
Death By Crucifixion Part I
Dr. Thomas Dooley wrote a book called "The Night They Burned the Mountain". He had served as a missionary doctor to the Laotians and had become their friend. He was once given a tiny Himalayan moonbear as a pet. It was a cuddly ball of brown fur, full of interesting antics and Dr. Dooley began to build a cage for the animal. An old Chinese man happened upon him as he worked on the cage and this old man simply stopped, stared and then began to sob as he looked at the cage. Dr. Dooley went over to him to discover the reason for the tears, he heard a story of the greatest tragedy this man had ever experienced. The old Chinese and his son had once worked together on a commune in Red China. He reminded the doctor that laborers on the communes at harvest time were not to have one grain of rice for themselves, for it was all the property of the Republic. Well, his wife, had become very sick with beriberi and malnutrition and the son had concealed a few handfuls of rice in his clothing to take to his starving mother. He was discovered and the authorities decided to make a public example out of the young boy. They imprisoned him in a cage, not unlike the one that Dr. Dooley had made for his pet bear, and had put the caged youth in the center of the city. The cage was so small that the boy could not move or even sit up straight. The man went on to say,
"His mother and I were forced to watch, she from one side of the square and I from the other. But the guards would not allow us to go near him. Day after day, as we looked on, my boy died slowly, under the broiling sun with nothing to eat or drink, covered with filth and flies. It was good when the guards pronounced him dead."
That man never forgot the sight of that cage and his son's slow death!
Frankly, I am agreement with Kent Hughes who wrote, "it is easy to discuss the cross of Christ in a disinterested way . . . to think about it - and then to forget about it. The trouble is, we are desensitized by daily scenes of real violence . . . bloodshed and murder no longer have the power to move us.
So also, the death of Christ on the cross has become so much a part of our religious upbringing that we no longer really notice it, much less are we moved by it."
It's possible for me to preach as thousands have preached before me of the cross - and then for us to go eat Sunday dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy without ever being moved.
Ladies and gentlemen, I can't do anything to change that - but my prayer has been and is now that the Spirit of God through me will bring the truths of Calvary home to you with forceful reality.
I want us to stand in amazement like the Apostle Paul who wrote, "He became obedient unto death, even (if you can imagine it) death on a cross."
Over these next three Sundays I want us to see the events of the crucifixion as if for the first time - they are real, they are horrifying, they are liberating - when properly seen they are an incredible window into the heart of God . . . who loved us so much that He sent His Son to die on the cross, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.
You see, Jesus, the Son of God, is about to be willingly caged...tortured to death...and his Father will not intervene.
SCENE #1 opens in John's Gospel chapter 19:1 "Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged Him."
Now in our past sessions together, you may remember that Pilate tried several things to have Jesus released. Nothing worked.
He finally turns them over to his calloused Roman soldiers and let them have Jesus. Every person who was crucified was first scourged or flogged.
It was commonly referred to as the "half-way death" - most of its victims slipped into a shock like state . . . some died before they ever reached the cross. This was no Singapore caning - no matter how painful that was.
Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived in Rome during the Lord's lifetime wrote about the son of Ananus, who was scourged until his bones were laid open."
Eusibius, a third century writer reported that many of the early Martyrs were scourged until "the deepest veins and the arteries were exposed, and even the inner organs of the body were seen."
Now John does not give any description of either the crucifixion or the scourging - why? Because his reader already knew what the details were - they had witnessed some of their own relatives and friends go through the it.
You see, just 15 years before John published his Gospel, Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman army. During the siege of Jerusalem, Roman troops would crucify 500 Jews every day for several months. Scourging and crucifixion were facts of life for the believers who would read the Gospel we are reading today!
Well, John tells us in verse one that Jesus was delivered to be scourged - to experience this "half-way" death.
Scourging was administered by a professional executioner known as a "lictor". Many times there were two of them alternating their blows.
Their weapon was a flagellum - a whip like tool with a short wooden handle, long leather straps were braided of variable lengths with pieces of metal and bone sewn at intervals into the braided leather.
The severity of the scourging depended on the mood of the lictors. From what the John recorded, the mood was vicious and vindictive.
The Lord had all his clothing removed, then he was tied to a stone post and his hands tied to an upright post . . . after they were finished Jesus would, like any other man, be close to collapse or even death.
Now look at verse 2. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on His head and arrayed Him in a purple robe and they began to come up to Him, and say, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and to give Him blows in the face.
Arthur Pink wrote,
“Christ was on the point of making atonement for sin, therefore sin must be revealed in all its enormity.
Sin is lawlessness - therefore did Pilate scourge the innocent One.
Sin is transgression, therefore did Pilate set aside all the principles of Roman law.
Sin is rebellion against God, therefore did Jew and Gentile alike mistreat the Son of God.
Sin is an offense, therefore did they outrage every dictate of conscience and propriety.
Sin is coming short of the glory of God, therefore did they heap insults upon His Son.
Sin is defilement, therefore did they cover His face with vile spittle.
The Lords' hand had dispensed healing; their hands struck blows; His voice had spoken words of cheer; they reviled Him; His holy soul overflowed with love and mercy; they were embittered, murderous, despicable.”
In John's record that there is no mention of Jesus pulling the crown from his head - no scene of Him letting the purple robe slip from His bleeding shoulders. . .
No . . . there He would stand, the Lamb, silent before his slaughter, a mass of swollen, bruised and bloodied flesh.
This was the cup of damnation and as Spurgeon wrote, “Christ will willingly lift it to His lips and drink it all dry!”
Pilate fails to release Jesus, the crowd in verse 15 is screaming, "Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify you King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar." 16. So he then delivered Him to them to be crucified. 17. They took Jesus therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.
In Matthew 27 we’re given an even more descriptive account of this mile long walk.
SCENE #2: The "Via Dolorosa" – which means, “the road/way of suffering.”
Matthew 27:31. And after they had mocked Him, they took His robe off and put His garments on him, and led Him away to crucify Him. 32. And as they were coming out, they found a man of Cyrene named Simon, whom they pressed into service to bear His cross."
It was the custom of this day for the condemned man to be taken, procession style through the streets of the city, displaying him to the crowds as well as announcing his crime. It was a great deterrent to crime and the Romans played it to the max.
Surrounded by four Roman soldiers, and in front would be the Centurion carrying the titulus - the wooden sign that had printed on it the crime of the condemned man.
Now we all have had a mental image of Jesus dragging the cross wearily until he stumbles and falls. Nowhere in the record of scripture does it say that Jesus fell, or even stumbled.
Perhaps they knew he was too weak to carry the crossbeam, perhaps they wanted him killed quickly, and he would have had to walk too slowly in his weakened condition. . .we don't know.
Matthew 26:32 simply says, "They found a man of Cyrene named Simon, whom the pressed into service to bear His cross."
Warren Weirsbe made an interesting suggestion - He said, "The bearing of the cross was a mark of a criminals guilt; and Jesus was not dying because he was a criminal condemned of some crime or sin; it was mankind that was guilty. So you see Jesus walking down that Via Dolorosa, led in front by the Centurion declaring His true title, "King of the Jews" while a representative of guilty humanity carries the cross.
Now I need to reformat your thinking - Elmer Dixon helped me with the specifics of recreating an actual cross, and Peter Beck actually built it and also arranged this set. I'm grateful for their help . . .Peter agreed to carry the crossbeam (patibulum) in the same way that any condemned man of that era would have carried it as he walked to the execution site.
PETER COMES FORWARD CARRYING THE CROSSBEAM
You need to understand that the cross weighed nearly 300 pounds in all. There was no way anyone could manage to drag a 300 pound cross over the distance of a mile and up a hill.
Thanks to the Jewish and Roman historians, we know that the vertical piece of the cross called the "stipe" was permanentlyanchored at the site of execution. It was the cross beam, or "the patibulum," that was actually carried, weighing nearly 100 pounds. The condemned man carried it on his shoulders, with his hands usually tied to the beam.
When they arrived at the site, the patibulum would be placed on the ground and the condemned man also - on the ground on his back. His hands would be nailed to the crossbeam and the four soldiers would then lift that cross beam and slip it over the mortis and tenon joint;
This brings us to scene three - undoubtedly the beginning of another scene that makes the hideousness and cruelty of the first two scenes seem like child's play.
Look at Matthew 26:33. And when they had come to a place called Golgotha, which means place of a skull, they gave Him wine to drink mingled with gall; and after tasting it, He was unwilling to drink.
Crucifixion was an invention of the Assyrians and Persians who practiced this form of execution 1000 years before the time of Christ. According to Jewish historians, the very year that Christ was crucified, at least 1,000 others were as well.
The Persians believed the earth was sacred and didn't wish to defile the earth with the body of an evil-doer. So they nailed him to a cross and left him to die there, looking for the vultures to sometimes finish the job.
Alexander the Great seemed fond of this form of execution, crucifying 2,000 prisoners of war at a time. He introduced the practice to the Carthaginians and the Romans later perfected the torture to produce a slow death with maximum pain and suffering.
To prolong the process they added a crude seat, called a sedulum, which allowed the condemned to live up to 4 or 5 days. They usually died from a combination of dehydration, shock, blood loss, paralysis of the diaphragm and impatient vultures; or Roman soldiers who broke their legs and pushed them sideways off the saddle. Their broken legs would be unable to push them back up and they would die of asphyxiation – unable to inhale and exhale properly as they hung helplessly from their hands.
You need to know the ancients considered the “hand” to include not only the fingers and palm but the wrist as well. Because the spikes would have easily torn through the tissue and small bones of the palm, we know from historical accounts that the Romans actually drove the spikes through the wrist.
Next the feet would be nailed - the legs would be bent in a crouching position and turned to one side. The feet would be overlapped and, with one long spike, pinned to the cross.
A skeleton was discovered some time ago of a young man who had been crucified. His wrists bones were punctured and a spike was still embedded in the bones of his ankles.
The pain would have been excruciating. It’s interesting that the word “excruciating” came from the Latin language which literally means, “out of the cross.” This form of death created its own vocabulary for pain.
I've discovered that respected and godly women of the city took on themselves a ministry of mercy. In obedience to Proverbs 31:6, "Give strong drink to him who is perishing.” These women were known to mix a narcotic, pain-reducing drink that they offered the condemned criminals.
Jesus refused this narcotic - he would allow no alleviation of suffering and would maintain his lucidness to minister mercy to the dying thief as well as give his wonderful final words (we'll look at them next Lord's day).
Now if you were a Roman citizen you need never fear death this way. . .Cicero the Roman statesman said, “Let the cross never come near the body of a Roman citizen; nay, not even near his thoughts or eyes or ears.”
Cultured Gentiles refrained from even saying the word "cross."
That had interesting implications as Paul would later write to Roman and Gentile believers that every believer was "crucified with Christ." That Paul would write, "God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Now go back to John’s account of the crucifixion.
John 19:18. There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side and Jesus in between. 19. And Pilate wrote an inscription also, and put it on the cross, and it was written, "Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews." 20. Therefore this inscription many of the Jews read, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and in Greek.
Imagine, this was written in the language of the Jews (Hebrew), in the language of the world power (Latin) and in the language of the most universal tongue the world would ever know (Greek). In other words, Jesus was the King of Kings, and the whole world could read the declaration.
19:21. And so the chief priests of the Jews were saying to Pilate, "Do not write, "The King of the Jews"; but that He said, "I am King of the Jews." 22. Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written."
Frankly, Pilate knew this would infuriate the jealous Jewish leaders - this was salt in their wounds - but imagine, the first Gospel tract ever published was by order of a pagan ruler - and thousands of Jews were confronted by its truth. And millions since then have read it as well in holy Scripture.
Would you note that the inscription was not a record of his trumped up crime (blasphemy), but an announcement of His true character - He was the King! And don’t forget that a thief, hanging nearby, would read that strange tract - and ultimately believe!
23. The soldiers therefore, when they had crucified Jesus, took His outer garments and made four parts, a part to every soldier and also the tunic.
You need to understand that this was the overtime pay for the soldiers - the clothing of the criminals would be added to their own wardrobes as payment for their distasteful duty.
According to the description in the Gospel, this tunic was seamless, woven in one piece, thus very special and expensive. 24. They said therefore to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, to decide whose it shall be; that the Scripture might be fulfilled, "They divided My outer garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots."
At the foot of the cross, these calloused soldiers are shaking makeshift dice in on of their helmets - the first one to fly from the helmet was the winner.
Why the fuss? They were dicing for something very special - it was a waist long linen shirt ("kiton") worn next to the skin - it was soft and seamless. In fact, there was only one other person in Jerusalem who traditionally wore one of these garments - the high priest. Josephus, and other authorities on Christ's culture, substantiate the fact that the High Priest wore a "kiton" as part of his special high priestly garb.
Some seamstress must have believed Christ's claim to be our High Priest . . . the true Forgiver of sins! And had taken the time to make him his own "kiton".
But what irony - the role of the high priest was to bring the people before God as well as the knowledge of God to the people. In fact, the very word “priest” in Latin means bridge-builder. The High Priest was supposed to be a bridge builder between God and man. But no human priest could ever do it completely, eternally.
And what was Christ doing? Don’t miss it! He was doing what only the Divine High Priest could do - building a bridge from earth to heaven - a bridge, in the form of an old rugged cross between God and man.
To this very day, an invitation is extended from this old wooden cross.
1) A call to reality: Don't ever be deluded into thinking that since Christ was God, that somehow his suffering was not as great for him as it would have been. . .oh no. He hung here as a man, among men, in total dependence upon the Father. His pain was alleviated by nothing! If anything the fact that He was also God only heightened his suffering, for He, the sinless One would become vile sin for us.
2) This cross provides a call to recognition: God, the Son is capable of understanding your deepest disappointments and sorrows. He suffered too. He experienced betrayal, denial, violation of his basic rights, physical torture, abandonment, thirst, humiliation. . .in fact, He suffered infinitely so that we would only have to suffer temporarily. He experienced sorrow so that we could experience joy. He emptied Himself so that we could become eternally rich.
3) It also gives a call to rejoice: If the cruel events of this crucifixion have anything to teach us it would be that God is in control of the worst of circumstances. On the surface, it appears that Jesus' life was wasted, that His cause has failed . . . a comedy of errors . . . but the truth is, God's divine plan was being worked out. In this dark and terrible moment, God was completely in control . . . and He will ultimately bring rejoicing out of sorrow.
4) This old cross still rings out a call to repentance: John the Baptist introduced Jesus at the beginning of Christ's ministry by saying, "Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."
Jesus Christ didn't hang there for the good deeds of religious people. He wasn't nailed there so that you could add Him to your Sunday school attendance or to your baptism or good deed or any other god you hope will take you to heaven; he hung there as the High Priest! As the Passover Lamb! As the only way to heaven - He was and still is the Living Bridge!
And anyone who is willing to admit He died for their sins too, can walk across this bridge into the family of God.
In the seventeenth century, a popular devotional writer was Lewis Bayly. Rather unknown today, his devotional handbook, Practice of Piety was popular reading a few centuries ago. In fact, John Bunyan, who would later write, A Pilgrim's Progress, was given this devotional volume by his wife as a wedding present. Near the end of that devotional guide, there is a conversation between the soul and Christ in which Christ explains to the soul the meaning of the cross.
I want to close our discussion today by reading a few lines of that “conversation.”
Soul: Lord, why wouldest Thou be taken, when Thou mightest have escaped Thine enemies?
Christ: That thy spiritual enemies should not take thee, and cast thee into the prison of utter darkness.
Soul: Lord, why wouldest Thou be bound?
Christ: That I might loose the chords of Thine iniquities.
Soul: Lord, why wouldest Thou be lifted up upon a cross?
Christ: That I might lift thee up with Me to heaven.
Soul: Lord, why were Thy hands and feet nailed to the cross?
Christ: To enlarge thy hands to do the works of righteousness and to set thy feet at liberty, to walk in the
ways of peace.
Soul: Lord, why wouldest Thou have Thine arms nailed abroad?
Christ: That I might embrace thee more lovingly, My sweet soul.
Soul: Lord, why was Thy side opened with a spear?
Christ: That thou mightest have a way to come near to my heart.
Wow, what powerful truths.
Without a doubt, the foot of the cross touched earth as if to say, God has moved to touch man; the top of the cross pointed heavenward as if to point the way to God; the arms of the cross stretched outward as if to say, whosoever will, may come . . . even me . . . even you.
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