By Donald P Ames
It is sometimes hard for man, living nearly 2,000 years this side of the cross of Calvary, to fully appreciate the suffering and shame that accompanied such a death as Jesus endured on the cross. Although Pilate proclaimed, “I find no guilt in Him” (Jn. 19:4), he was condemned to die a death that was reserved for the very worst of society, and often referred to as “the most terrible punishment of slaves.” According to the Popular And Critical Bible Encyclopedia (Vol. I, p. 475), “The criminal died under the most frightful sufferings-so great that even amid the raging passions of war pity was sometimes excited.” It is to this death we now direct our attention.
It Was Voluntary
First of all, it must be stressed that the death of Jesus was not something over which He had no control. It was not something “that fate had decreed and I can do nothing about.” Jesus affirmed this when he said, “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (Jn. 10:17-18). As He was arrested, He reminded Peter and the others, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53-the equivalent of 72,000 troops).
But Jesus endured that death! Why? That mankind might be saved from the wrath of God (Rom. 2:5; Matt. 26:28)! He recognized that it was for this purpose He had entered into the world (Matt. 16:21) and He was obedient to the very end, the supreme test of His obedience to the will of God (Phil. 2:8; Heb. 5:8-9). Let us not lose sight of this important fact as we continue our study. It would be something like a man watching a vice slowly close completely crushing his legs, and yet knowing all the time that all he had to do was to move them or say, “stop,” and the process could cease-while the very one he may have been trying to help was busy telling him what a stupid fool he was for doing something so completely irrational.
The agony of the death upon the cross lay not just in the shame associated with it (though it was the most shameful of all deaths-Gal. 3:13-a long step downward for the divine Son of God), nor did those so put to death usually die from loss of blood. In fact, very little blood was actually lost until it came time to remove the nails or spikes from the wounds. Historical records reveal that victims removed early enough often lived and recovered completely. On the other hand, the death was a slow, painful process in which a normally healthy individual could sometimes last as long as 36 hours before dying. This is the reason the Jews besought the Romans to break the legs of Jesus and the thieves in order to hasten the process (Jn. 19:31).
Jesus had already been up all night going through the mockery of a trial, and in accord with the Roman custom, had been beaten before being forced to bear his cross to Calvary (Mk. 15:15; Jn. 19:17). His apparent weakened condition is implied by the fact that Simon was compelled to bear the cross for Him (Luke 23:26-though some say this may have been to continue their mockery of Jesus). According to Eusebius, the Romans used such scourgings to get confessions, and sometimes their flesh was so torn their veins, muscles and even their bowels were left exposed from it. Yet from Jesus comes no cry for pity or retaliation due to His innocence (1 Pet. 2:23).
He was placed into position, and the nails or spikes were set upon his hands and feet to await the crushing blow of the hammer that would drive them through the flesh and into the wood below-one agonizing blow after another until they were satisfied. Then the cross was raised and slid down into the hole where the bump at the bottom ripped and pulled on the spikes. Sometimes the wrists were tied up high, making breathing extremely difficult as well. In this position, Jesus finally was able to pause and observe the crowd around Him for whom He was willing to die (1 Pet. 2:24). Was there any respect for the Son of God? Any appreciation for what He was doing? No, nothing but a mockery of all He had sought to impart to them over the past three years (Matt. 27). Even the thieves crucified with Him regarded themselves better than Him (Luke 23:39). Oh, how easy it would have been to tell them “where to go, ” to leave the cross and forget mankind who now dared to mock even the Son of God Himself!
But now the painful reactions to the nails were setting in. The blood loss from the beating and the spikes was now making His heart beat faster, and the throbbing was increasing in His brain with each beat of the heart. Inflamation was setting in because of the presence of the spikes, accompanied with a fever that was rapidly rising. All desire for food was gone, but the throbbing and intense fever produced a thirst that begged to be appeased. Jesus requested something to drink (Jn. 19:28); they offered Him gall and vinegar! The fever continued to intensify for several hours before mortification (decaying of one part of the body while the rest is alive) set in and gangrene slowly spread throughout his body. Soon even the sense of pain was lost as the infection and gangrene continued to spread. Death would be the only relief!
And yet, while a few wept, the soldiers ignored the situation and gambled over His belongings for their part of the loot! The Jews continued to mock and slap at Him! But from the lips of Christ came forth, not a railing, but a plea, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Even the thief who formerly had made mockery of Him, now was moved to repentance to ask for forgiveness (Luke 23:43).
Perhaps if Jesus had been surrounded and supported by his band of faithful disciples, at least He could have taken comfort in knowing all was not in vain. But in addition to the physical suffering, there was laid upon Him the agony of being forsaken by all those close to Him-those whom He had come to love and trust, those for whom He had so earnestly prayed the night before, yes even those regarded as His “inner circle.”
First of all, Judas-one of His own disciples. Yes, he had known (John 13:21-30), but that did not lessen the sadness of his heart. Judas did not come out openly and deny Him. Even the disciples did not fully realize the impact of Judas’ actions. Yet, at the fateful hour, he appeared to plant a kiss (a greeting of close friendship) upon his former leader. Then he stepped back to take his place among the ranks of the enemies (Jn. 18:5).
His own disciples, who shortly before offered to journey to Judea “that we may die with Him” (In. 11:16), were now mixed up and confused. Earlier that evening they had sworn their loyalty (Matt. 26:35). But the actual test was now before them! Peter for a brief second displayed a physical reaction but, when rebuked, turned and fled with the rest! And then to add insult to injury, Jesus had to stand by and hear Peter fulfill what Christ had prophesied-deny Him three times. Yes, Jesus knew-but the loneliness and heartache were still there as He watched His disciples departing, one by one, till finally He remained all alone.
And yet, still he was not really alone. The Bible says he “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). If all the others left Him, God was still present! The Father was still with Him in this dark hour. Then, suddenly in this dark hour of agony, as Jesus was made to be sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and a curse (Gal. 3:13) for us, God Himself had to turn His back upon the events transpiring. That close feeling of comfort and encouragement was now gone, that horrible void that so loudly said, “You are now all alone.” From the lips of Jesus comes forth the cry that reaches to the very depth of His soul, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Yes, at this point, even God had turned His back upon Jesus because of the sins He bore in our behalf. Yet, Jesus cried out, “My God”-the loyalty that carried through His obedience (Phil. 2:8).
Isaiah said, “the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief … as a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied” (Isa. 53:10-11). Jesus voluntarily laid down His life that we might be redeemed (Rom. 3:21-26). He suffered all the agonies men can suffer, and the worst form of loneliness (not even having God to turn to), that God, who turned His back on sin might be pleased with this supreme sacrifice and save those who so spitefully treated His own Son. What are you willing to sacrifice for Him?
Truth Magazine, XX:22, p. 11-12
May 27, 1976