Jesus, Crucified

(from a two-part lesson by Kyle Pope)

Intro: We are studying the life of Jesus, the Lord of Glory. This month we begin a closer look at Jesus, the crucified One. 1 Cor 1:21-24For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

  • The gospel message that brings salvation is the story of a crucifixion. Christ is not our Savior unless He is crucified. There are many who have stumbled over that fact that Jesus died on a Roman cross, or simply dismissed it as foolishness. How can one who did not save Himself, save others? Ironically, as Paul points out here, the message of Christ crucified displays both the power and wisdom of God. We will look closer at Jesus’ death on the cross, and view how this is so.

I. What do we know about crucifixion? The first mention of crucifixion is from Jesus Himself, when he predicted His own death to His disciples. Matt 20:17-19 – Now Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, 18 “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, 19 and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.” Despite Jesus’ specific terminology, the Bible itself does not give any detail concerning crucifixion. The writers simply state“Then they crucified Him” (Matt 27:35). It assumes we know what it is, and the people of Jesus’ audience did.

A. What was crucifixion? Crucifixion was probably the most horrible form of capital punishment ever devised by man. The English term “excruciating” literally means “out of crucifying”. Among the Jews this method of punishment carried a stigma of being accursed (Gal. 3:13). The apostle Paul spoke of “the offense (scandal) of the cross” in Gal. 5:11. In Philippians he described the humility of Jesus as one who endured “even the death on the cross.” (Phil. 2:8) The Roman statesman Cicero called crucifixion, “the most miserable and most painful punishment appropriate to slaves alone” (Against Verres, 2.5.169). There was no honorable way to be crucified.

1. It is often believed that crucifixion was developed by the Roman. But this is not so.

2. It is believed that crucifixion was employed by the Persians as early as 500 years before Christ. Darius had 3,000 Babylonians crucified when he conquered that territory. Later, it was employed by the Greeks. Following the destruction of Tyre, Alexander the Great crucified 2,000 men of military age.

3. The Jews even used crucifixion on occasion. In the inter-biblical age, both Antiochus Epiphanes (Selucid) and Alexander Jannaeus (Hasmonean -103-76 B.C.) crucified people. the later killed 800 Pharisees who had been involved in a revolt. But the Romans were most noted for the practice. In 71 B.C., following a slave revolt in Rome, 6,000 recaptured slaves were crucified on the Appian Way leading to the city (Vos, p. 439).

B. What was a cross? It is much glamorized and sanitized today. But a cross was an instrument of death. What did the cross look like? We seldom see any other depiction that the common “t” shaped” cross. But there were various forms of the instrument of death.

1. The most basic was the crux simplex (or stipes) – This was a simple vertical stake to which a victim was nailed, tied or even impaled. It is believed that the Romans adopted the use of this form the Phoenicians after the Punic wars.

2. The Romans had long practiced the custom of parading condemned men to their death bound to a wooden yoke called a patibulum (or furca). Plutarch describes the same custom, using the Greek word xulon used in Acts 5:30 of the “cross” (or “tree”) on which Jesus was hung (Coriolanus 24.5).

3. The Romans combined the simple stake with the yoke or cross-beam to form the crux compacta, which could take several forms:

        • The crux immissa (or capita) – †.
        •  The crux commissa (or tau) – T.
        •  The crux decussata – X.

4. The Roman writers describe the combination of these two elements, describing a condemned man bearing the yoke (patibulum) through the city; then being nailed to the cross (crux)” The picture here is that of carrying the cross-beam, which would be attached to the upright when actually crucified.

5. Jesus probably carried His own patibulum (John 19:17-18a) until they compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry it for Him (Matt. 27:32), and at Golgotha they likely joined the patibulum to the crux simplex and “crucified Him.”

6. What did Jesus’ cross look like? The NT does not specify the type of cross Jesus died on. Second century writers claim some type of cross beam construction. Ignatius speaks of one being raised up on a cross (patibulum?). Justin described Jesus’ cross as a beam set upright with a beam raised up to it (Dialogue 91). Tertullian described Jesus’ cross as consisting of a “cross-beam (antenna)” and a “projecting seat (sedile)” (Ad Nationes 1.12; cf. Contra Marcian 3.18).

C. What transpired in a Roman Crucifixion? Can we begin to visualize the event itself as it occurred? Dr. Anthony Sava lists three stages to a common crucifixion:

1. Flagellation (a severe scourging intended to weaken the victim) – Scourging – a beating with a three-thong whip (fashioned of plaited leather, and studded with bone and metal). The severity of the scourging determined the time the victim spent on the cross. Eusebius records accounts of witnesses to the scourging of Christians in the second century seeing their bodies torn to such a degree that their “entrails, and organs were exposed to sight” (Ecclesiastical History 4.15.4). “So Pilate, wanting to gratify the crowd, released Barabbas to them; and he delivered Jesus, after he had scourged Him to be crucified”. (Mark 15:15) Jesus was scourged by both the Jews and the Romans.

2. Crucifixion (the actual binding of the victim to a cross). death was slow coming in a crucifixion (sometimes it took days for the person to die). Jesus was on the cross for 6 hours. The pain would have been unimaginable. The criminal would be made to lie upon the ground, with the crossbeam under his upper back. The arms were then attached by nails, driven through the palms (close to the thumb) or through the wrists. The term for hands in the NT account can refer to the wrists as well. The feet were nailed also.

            • In 1968, north of Mount Scopus in an area of Jerusalem, an ossuary (or bone box) was found containing the bones of an adult male, dated to the first century. The man was clearly the victim of crucifixion as revealed by the fact that a large nail was still driven through the right heel bone. Wood fragments were still present under the head and tip of the nail, indicating that it had first been driven into a wooden plate before it was nailed through the man’s heal and into the cross. This likely was intended to prevent the heel from slipping off the nail. One source has suggested that only one heel was pierced by the nail and that the feet may have straddled the upright beam, with nails affixing the legs to each side of the olivewood post (Zias, pp. 22-27). The man’s legs were broken, similar to what is described of the thieves crucified with Jesus (John 19:32).
            • The Biblical text tells us that Jesus was crucified with both his hands and feet. “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” Luke 24:39

3. Crurifragium [crew-ree-frag- ee -um] (breaking the legs of the victim to hasten death). This was the last stage of the crucifixion process. The legs of the victim were broken below the knee to disallow him to support himself and incur further pain and shock. John 19:31-33Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. 32 Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. The soldiers then pierced Jesus’ side with a spear. John goes on to tell us that this is a fulfillment of OT prophecy. John 19:36-37For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, “Not one of His bones shall be broken.” 37 And again another Scripture says, “They shall look on Him whom they pierced.” The fact that Jesus’ legs were not broken also fulfilled the image of Jesus as the Passover Lamb. “They shall leave none of it until morning, nor break one of its bones. According to all the ordinances of the Passover they shall keep it” (Numbers 9:12)

II. What Caused Jesus Death? This question has been investigated from the forensic and medical side, especially in connection with what we do know about crucifixion. There are two popular answers.

A. Asphyxiation: Since the mid-twentieth century, with the publication of A Doctor at Calvary by French surgeon Pierre Barbet, many commentators have explained Jesus’ death as the result of asphyxia.

1. According to Barbet’s theory, a victim suspended on a cross suffered intense constriction of the rib cage compressing the lungs. When exhaustion (or the breaking of legs) took place, the victim could no longer push himself up allowing the lungs to expand, resulting in a sustained inhalation ultimately depriving the victim of oxygen.

B. Hypovolemic and traumatic shock, ultimately resulting in cardiac arrest. Modern Re-evaluation of the asphyxiation theory has led some to suggest that the more likely cause of death in a crucifixion is not from lack or respiration, but loss of blood and body fluids putting enormous strain on the heart, causing it to fail. As with the former explanation, this type of death would be accompanied by severe, prolonged pain.

C. None of the Above… But let me suggest that we consider the biblical answer to this question. Scripture records that when Jesus died, He “cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit” (Matt. 27:50, NKJV). John records that He said the simple words, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Luke records His cry, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46, KJV).

        • The literal Greek in Matthew 27:50 says Jesus “sent away the spirit.”
        • John states “He gave up the spirit” (John 19:30).
        • Vincent suggests that this “seems to imply a voluntary yielding up of his life” (145).

2. In some of the earliest texts that addressed the cause of Jesus’ death, the voluntary choice on the part of Christ to release His spirit at His will was the accepted explanation.

            • Tertullian wrote, “At his own free-will, he with a word dismissed from him his spirit” (Apology 21).
            •  We can certainly appreciate some of the medical theories above that offer explanations for the physical and biological factors involved in crucifixion. Perhaps some or all of these factors played a role. But we must not discount the fact that in Jesus we are not talking about One who could simply be overtaken by death. Jesus declared: “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father” (John 10:17-18, NKJV).

3. Wilkinson writes, “We believe… that the view which most satisfactorily explains our Lord’s death is that he voluntarily surrendered his life on the cross before the usual physical causes of death in crucifixion could operate. He did not die from some inevitable physical necessity or pathological process” (“The Physical Cause of Jesus’ Death” 107).

4. We must not allow the consideration of science and medicine to blind us to who Jesus truly was. He was God in the flesh, laying down his life for man by His own choice!

5. Augustine, commenting on Jesus’ declaration, “It is finished,” wrote that Jesus said this “as if he had been waiting for this, like one, indeed, who dies when he willed it to be so” (Harmony of the Gospels 3.18).

6. He wrote further, “He came to the death of the flesh, because he did not leave it against his will, but because he willed, when he willed, as he willed” (On the Trinity 4.13 {16}). Amen!

Conclusion. Why did Jesus do this? Out of love for a lost and dying world (John 3:16). Because He loves you. Do not fail to respond to the cross of Jesus. It is the power of God to salvation, therefore we preach Jesus, crucified.