Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. “And… there they crucified him…” (Luke 23:33, ESV). With those five simple words, Luke records the biggest understatement in history. “There they crucified him.” It is easy for us to gloss right past those words in our reading. We prefer to focus on the last words of Jesus or the attending miracles of darkness and earthquakes. But the mechanics of the crucifixion itself are not something we like to consider. We do not want to look at the cross because it is ugly.
For Luke and the other Evangelists, there was no need to go into detail about what happened to Jesus during his scourging and crucifixion. People living under the thumb of Rome were all too familiar with the cruelty of crucifixion. They did not need all the gory details. But we are so far removed from the heyday of the Roman Empire, that we cannot even begin to conceive what crucifixion was like.
In our sterile, hygienic world, we have little exposure to any kind of death anymore. For us, death is either a statistic on the evening news or an object of entertainment in video games and movies. But people used to die in their beds at home surrounded by family and neighbors. As awful as it was, people’s loved ones watched them die. Now we die in clean, white hospitals or nursing homes surrounded by caretakers wearing latex gloves and separated from our loved ones by a curtain.
Unless you are a healthcare worker—or a pastor—you may never have seen somebody die. Let me tell you: death is not pretty. Even when people are aided by morphine and other pain medications, dying is hard work. The brain, heart, and lungs do everything they can to hold onto whatever life is left in the body, and often the moments leading up to death are excruciating. Not everyone passes peacefully in their sleep with a smile on their face. Even many believers die laboriously. I remember one woman who died midsentence with a terrible grimace and alarmed look in her eyes.
Crucifixion is even more remote for us. Despite our Pauline emphasis that “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23), many Protestants, including some Lutherans, are entirely scandalized by a crucifix and appalled when they see a corpus on a cross. “Didn’t Jesus rise from the dead?” they ask. Yes, of course, he did! But in order to rise from the dead, first he had to die. Christians tend to shy away from the cross because we are embarrassed by bodies. We are ashamed of our own bodies, and we are ashamed of Jesus’ body too. For us, the cross is no less of a scandal than it was to the first hearers of the Gospel, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). We prefer not only sanitary deaths, but sanitary religion as well. (No wonder, then, that the first doctrines heretics jettison tend to be the virgin birth and the resurrection).
No doubt about it, the death of Jesus was excruciating and terrible to look at. And if we truly preach Christ crucified, it is important for us to gaze upon our Savior’s bloody, wooden throne and crown of thorns. If we would know Jesus’ love for us, we must look upon the cross instead of turning away.
That is why in 2003, Mel Gibson released his movie, The Passion of the Christ, in which he offered to the world a devotional meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus. Written and directed by a devout Roman Catholic Christian, The Passion was almost like an icon in motion, an image for contemplation by true believers. However, to many film critics, the overwhelming violence of the film’s depiction of Christ’s suffering was cause for scandal. Surely, they reasoned, nobody could endure scene after scene of deliberate torture without a negative impact. Some went so far as to compare The Passion with pornography, not because of any sexual fetishism (there’s nothing at all erotic about the movie), but because of its voyeuristic intrusion into another person’s bodily experience. As for me, the film moved me to tears and changed my understanding of Good Friday forever.
But people stomach blood and gore with varying levels of tolerance. I am from a generation in which reports and depictions of violence are so numerous you almost need the horror of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ in order to begin to process just what Jesus went through for us. I do not want to traumatize my hearers today, but I would encourage you to read the famous “autopsy,” or report, made by Dr. C. Truman Davis, to analyze the historical, archaeological, and Biblical records in order to determine the exact medical cause of death for Jesus.
Dr. Davis’s medical description of crucifixion is too graphic (and too long) to read in its entirety today. But I want to summarize the main ideas.
Crucifixion began after the condemned prisoner carried his cross beam to the place of execution. The cross beam would be attached to the vertical post and then the prisoner would be tied to the cross with ropes. His arms would be stretched out on the cross beam, and nails would be driven between the radius and ulna in the wrist. (Even though artists’ representations often show the nails in the center of the palm, the reality is that the bone structure of the hand is unable to support the weight of a human body on the cross. In ancient anatomy, the wrist was regarded as part of the hand, so there is no difficulty understanding the Greek word for “hand” (xeir) to mean the wrist.) It should be noted that in Jesus’ case, excessive force was used in stretching out his arms, so much so that his shoulders were probably pulled out of socket, fulfilling the prophecy from Psalm 22, “All my bones are out of joint” (Ps. 22:14).
Next the knees would be bent slightly, the feet would be placed upon one another (sometimes next to each other) and then nailed to the vertical post of the cross. Then the cross would be lifted and dropped into a posthole in the ground.
Almost immediately, as the weight of the victim’s body pulled on his nailed wrists, shooting pain would race to his brain. With arms spread eagle, tightening the chest muscles, it was also very difficult to breathe, so as he gasped for breath, the victim’s feet would push down against the nails to heave upward. This, of course, would send pain shooting through his body again. In order to relieve the pain on his feet, he would go limp and transfer the pain to his wrists, yet again restricting his breath.
In this way, the crucified man would slowly die of dehydration, exhaustion, and suffocation, which killed him long before bleeding. Typically, according to Dr. Davis, death would not occur until at least 12 hours had passed. Sometimes it could take days. (The fact that Jesus died after just over three hours proves just how punishing his scourging was prior to the crucifixion proper [cf. Luke 23:44; Mark 15:44]).
Roman executioners were not allowed to leave their post until the crucified criminal was dead. For this reason, they often hastened death by breaking the victim’s legs or plunging a spear into their heart. As you recall, the malefactors crucified with Christ had their legs broken. But when the soldiers came to Jesus, they found he was already dead (John 19:33). So instead of breaking Jesus’ legs, they thrust a spear into his side, just to be sure (John 19:34). In this way, the life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to an unceremonious end.
All of that is summarized by the terse statement, “There they crucified him” (Luke 23:33). As I said before, that is the biggest understatement in all of human history.
So why did Jesus go through all that? Why endure such a painful ordeal? Why didn’t he do precisely what his enemies dared him to do—to come down from the cross and prove himself to be the Messiah in a spectacular display of power?
“He saved others,” they jeered. “Let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35).
“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (v. 37).
“Are you not the Christ? Save yourself—and us!” (v. 39).
Three different groups of people made fun of Jesus as he hanged on the cross: the Jewish priests, the Roman soldiers, and even the criminals crucified with him (we know from the other Synoptic Gospels that before his change of heart, even the penitent thief reviled him [Matt. 27:44; Mark 15:32]). They believed, of course, that nobody could wriggle his way down from the cross because no one ever had. But Jesus had no interest in saving himself.
“Save yourself and us!” railed one of the crucified criminals. Ironically, saving us is precisely what Jesus came to do. Amazingly, that is precisely why he didn’t come down from the cross. The Romans were good at killing people; Jesus was even better at saving them. Ultimately, it was not the nails that kept him on the cross; it was love. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…” (1 John 3:16). Love kept Jesus on the cross. Jesus died for your sins because he loves you! He could not bear to imagine eternity without you, and that is why—on the cross—he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Grammatically, it is unclear who “they” are: the Jewish priests mocking him, the Roman soldiers gambling for his clothes, the two criminals, his mother and the other Mary weeping at the foot of the cross? Yes, all of them, but more than just them. “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son…” (John 3:16).
As I have said many times before: “God so loved the world” means that God so loved you. Love kept Jesus on the cross. Jesus loves you. And it’s never too late to put your trust in him. A thief who, only moments earlier, mocked Jesus, in the end begged him, “Jesus, remember me…” (Luke 23:42). Jesus did remember him. He said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43). Love kept Jesus on the cross so that love could keep you with him forever. Jesus died to forgive you. Jesus rose from the dead to give you life. And now, as Christ the King, he reigns in heaven to remember you. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of T the Holy Spirit. Amen.