Holy Week | The Crucifixion
So, over the last few weeks, we have been exploring some of the events that take place during Holy Week. And we’ve been exploring some of the events that take place during Holy Week for a reason. Holy Week was one of the most difficult times in the history of our faith. During Holy Week Jesus was on the verge of being arrested, convicted, and executed. And Jesus knew that all of it was about to happen...but none of it kept Jesus from following God.
So, through the events of Holy Week, Jesus shows us how we can continue to follow God even in difficult times by the way that he lives throughout that week. And, you know what? That’s something we all need to know. We all need to know how we can follow God even in difficult times because we will all face difficult times.
So that’s why we’ve been exploring some of the events that take place during Holy Week. So over the last few weeks, we have talked about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and we’ve talked about the way Jesus cleared out the money changers from the Temple, and we’ve talked about the way Jesus cursed a fig tree for not producing fruit. And, last week, we talked about the way that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet before the last supper began.
But today, we’re getting into the biggest event that takes place during Holy Week. Today, we’re going to be talking about Jesus’ crucifixion. And, the truth is, we actually know quite a bit about Jesus’ crucifixion because there are four books in the Bible that tell us about it.
We call these four books the Gospels. The Gospels are the first four books we find in the New Testament. You have Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and these four books are all essentially biographies of Jesus. So these books tell us about Jesus’ birth and baptism. These four books tell us about Jesus’ ministry and his miracles. And, yes, these four books tell us about Jesus’ crucifixion too.
Now, since there are four different books that tell us about Jesus’ crucifixion, we clearly don’t have the time to look at everything that each of these books tell us about Jesus’ crucifixion. So, instead, we’re going to look at just a few details from two of these books today. And I want to start out by sharing with you how the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus’ crucifixion. So we’ll be looking at Mark chapter 15. And we’ll start reading in verse 22. Here’s what Mark writes:
22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha, which means Skull Place. 23 They tried to give him wine mixed with myrrh, but he didn’t take it. 24 They crucified him. They divided up his clothes, drawing lots for them to determine who would take what. 25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The notice of the formal charge against him was written, “The king of the Jews.”
Mark 15:22-26 (Common English Bible)
Now, Mark doesn’t get into a whole lot of details about what Jesus’ crucifixion was like. And the truth is, Mark really didn’t have to. You see, everyone that Mark was originally writing to would’ve known exactly what a crucifixion was like. But we don’t. We are almost 2,000 years removed from Jesus’ crucifixion, and it’s been almost 1,700 years since Constantine outlawed crucifixions altogether. So we don’t really understand the story of Jesus’ crucifixion the same way that the first people to hear about it did.
So, for us, the cross has simply become a symbol of our faith. So we’ve turned the cross into a shiny symbol that we stick on top of our buildings so that people know that we’re a church when they drive by. And we’ve turned the cross into a little gold or silver trinket that hangs from a necklace so we can show others what we believe. And we’ve turned the cross in a marketing tool that businesses slap onto their websites or bumper stickers so that people will implicitly trust them...even if they aren’t trustworthy.
But, today, I want to take a little time and talk about what Jesus’ crucifixion was really like. And I want to talk about what Jesus’ crucifixion was really like because we all need to understand that the cross that Jesus died on wasn’t pretty or elegant. The cross was bloody. The cross was brutal. And the cross was nothing but painful.
And make no mistake about it, the cross was all of those things and more. The cross was an implement of mass execution used throughout the Roman Empire for more than 800 years. And hundreds of thousands of people were killed on a cross. As a matter of fact, during Israel’s final failed attempt to overthrow the Roman government, it was said that so many people were crucified in Jerusalem that there wasn’t any wood left to make another cross.
Now, let that sink in for a minute. At one point Rome crucified so many people in Jerusalem that they ran out of wood. Now, that might just be hyperbole...but it leaves no doubt that Rome crucified more people than we could possibly imagine. So there’s no doubt that crucifixion was Rome’s preferred method of capital punishment. But what was it about the cross that made it Rome’s preferred method of capital punishment?
Well, it’s said that the Roman Emperor Tiberius--who just happened to be the Emperor of Rome when Jesus was crucified--preferred crucifixion because it prolonged the victim’s agony without granting them the relief of death. You see, Tiberius believed that death was an escape, so in his mind, an execution wasn’t really punishment. For it to be a punishment the victim had to suffer as much as they possibly could before they died.
That’s why Seneca--who was a Roman philosopher who lived about the same time as Jesus--said that if you knew there was a likelihood you would be arrested and crucified, it was better to end your own life. And it’s the reason why Josephus--who is the most well-known historian of that time--called crucifixion, “the most pitiable of deaths.”
Crucifixion was a horrible way to die. Crucifixion was a terrifying way to die. Crucifixion was an excruciating way to die. And Truman Davis, who is a medical doctor that has studied the physical effects of crucifixion, actually describes how the crucifixion would have affected Jesus’ body. Here’s what Dr. Davis writes. He writes:
As the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability [for a person] to push himself upward. Hanging by his arms, the pectoral muscles [the muscles that connect your chest and your arms] are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles [the muscles that run between your ribs] are unable to act. Air can be drawn into the lungs, but cannot be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in his lungs and in the bloodstream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically he is able to push himself upward to exhale and bring in the life-giving oxygen…
Hours of this limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain as tissue is torn from his lacerated back as he moves up and down against the rough timber; then another agony begins. A deep crushing pain in the chest as the pericardium [the membrane that encloses the heart] slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart.
It is now almost over--the loss of tissue fluid has reached a critical level--the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissues—the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. The markedly dehydrated tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain.
That’s a pretty horrifying description of what would’ve happened to Jesus while he was crucified...but it’s not even the whole story. Dr. Davis’ description doesn’t include how Jesus would’ve died. And ultimately fatigue, intense pain, or muscle atrophy would render victims of crucifixion unable to lift their body up to draw in another breath, and they would die from the lack of oxygen.
That’s what a crucifixion was really like. Crucifixion was a horrible way to die. Crucifixion was a terrifying way to die. Crucifixion was an excruciatingly painful way to die.
And what we sometimes forget is that Jesus wasn’t the only one that died that way that day. Sometimes we forget that Jesus wasn’t the only person who was crucified on Golgotha on the day that we’ve come to call Good Friday. But if you take a look at Luke chapter 23, you’ll see that there were others who were crucified right beside Jesus that day. So here’s what Luke tells us in Luke 23 starting in verse 32. Luke writes:
23:32 They also led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus.
So there were two other criminals that were crucified beside Jesus on Good Friday. Now, we don’t know a whole lot about either of these criminals. Like, we don’t know who they were. And we don’t know what crimes they may have committed that led to their crucifixion. The truth is that all we really know is that these people is that they were criminals who were crucified alongside Jesus.
So these two criminals would’ve been going through the exact same kind of suffering, the exact same kind of agony, the exact same kind of death that Jesus was. But, as we keep reading Luke’s account of the crucifixion, we’re going to find that these two criminals respond to their suffering in two completely different ways. So, let’s skip down to Luke 23:39 and see how these criminals respond to their crucifixions. Here’s what Luke tells us, he says:
39 One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
So in the face of the pain and suffering and agony that he is facing, the first criminal lashes out at Jesus. The translation I just read says that he insulted Jesus...but the truth is this first criminal did so much more than just insult Jesus. The Greek word that we translate as “insulted” in this passage is actually the word blasphémeó--which is obviously where we get the word blasphemy from. And blasphemy is when we intentionally say something about God that is demeaning and untrue. So this criminal doesn’t just insult Jesus, this criminal commits blasphemy against Jesus.
This criminal challenges Jesus’ very identity, wondering if Jesus is actually the Messiah and if Jesus is really capable of saving anyone at all.
But as harsh as his reaction may sound to those of us attending an online worship service today, it also shouldn’t be surprising. You know, over the last few weeks--as we’ve been exploring these stories from Holy week--we’ve also been talking about how we can follow God in difficult times.
And, in this story, this criminal is facing as difficult a time as anyone could possibly face. This criminal is hanging on a cross. He is dying an excruciatingly painful and agonizingly slow death. And in the face of everything that he is facing, this criminal seems to have given up on God. This criminal gives up on God.
And there are plenty of people who make that same choice when they face difficult times in their lives too. There are plenty of people who turn their backs on God, wondering if God is even real or if God can make any difference at all, when they’re going through tough times.
But it is worth pointing out here that that’s just one of the criminals’ reactions in this story. There’s still another criminal being crucified beside Jesus. So let’s turn back to the Gospel of Luke and see how he responds. We’ll pick back up in Luke 23:40. It says:
40 Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? 41 We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
So in this passage, the first criminal lashes out at Jesus while he’s dying on the cross. The first criminal commits blasphemy when he’s speaking to Jesus. The first criminal gives up on God.
But Luke tells us that the second criminal “spoke harshly” to the first criminal. And, once again, when we turn to the original Greek this passage was written in, it tells us even more about how the second criminal responded. The Greek word that’s translated as “spoke harshly” in this passage actually means “corrected” like when a parent corrects the behavior of a child who is acting up. So the second criminal speaks up on behalf of Jesus, and he tells the first guy that he’s got it all wrong.
The second criminal says that they are both getting what they deserve. Those two guys are criminals. Those two guys have done things that are evil. Those two guys have hurt people...but not Jesus. Jesus hasn’t done anything wrong at all. And then this second criminal turns to Jesus and he asks Jesus to remember him when Jesus comes into his kingdom.
So this second criminal, who is going through all the same pain, all the same suffering, all the same agony as the first criminal responds in a completely different way. The second criminal’s hard time drives him toward Jesus, not away from Jesus.
His hard times drive him toward Jesus not away from Jesus.
And now I want you to listen to how Jesus responds to this second criminal. Because Jesus’ response is simply incredible and it tells us so much about who our God is. So in Luke 23:43, we’re told:
43 Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”
Luke 23:32-43 (Common English Bible)
Jesus tells this second criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Now, I want to make sure you catch the irony in what Jesus says. Remember, the first criminal insults Jesus and basically says, “If you’re really the messiah then why don’t you save us?” And what does Jesus do? Jesus saves the criminal who actually treated him like the Messiah. Jesus saves the criminal who treated him like the Messiah.
But that’s not all that’s happening in this passage. Because when Jesus tells this second criminal that, “Today you will be with me in paradise”, Jesus reminds us all of something that we have to remember when we’re facing difficult times in our life. When this criminal is experiencing the hardest time of his life, God is right there with him. I mean, in this passage God is literally hanging on the cross right next to this guy. But when Jesus says that this second criminal will be with him in paradise while they are both dying on a cross, it shows that God is with us no matter where we are. There is no pain or suffering that we can experience that separates us from God.
So God is right there with this criminal...and all he had to do was just turn to him.
You know what? The same thing is true for us. The same thing is true for you. When you’re facing a difficult time in your life--whether you’re on the verge of filing bankruptcy, or going through a rough spot in your marriage, or in danger of losing your job, or struggling to pay your student loans, or wondering if the relationships with your children or parents can be repaired, or if you’re just struggling through this pandemic--God is right there with you.
But you have a choice to make. When you’re going through difficult times you can respond to God the same way the first criminal did or you can respond to God the way the second criminal did. When you're going through a difficult time, you can turn away from God or turn toward God.
When you're going through a difficult time, you can turn away from God or turn toward God.
But God is there either way. God doesn’t leave you in your toughest times...God is right there with you. God doesn’t desert you in life’s most difficult moment...God is right there with you. God doesn’t give up on you when your life gets rough...God is right there with you.
But you have to decide if you’re going to turn to God or not.
In this story, the first criminal doesn’t. The first criminal turns his back on God...and we have no idea how his story ends. But the second criminal turns to God. And he finds that God is right there waiting for him with open arms ready to welcome him home.
And if you turn to God, God will do the same thing for you that he did for that second criminal. God will assure you that not only will you someday make it to paradise...but God will help you make it through the hard times in life right now.
So no matter what you’re facing, remember that God is right there with you. Remember that God can understand what you’re going through. And remember that if you’ll just turn to God that he will help you make it through. That’s what Jesus did for that second criminal dying on the cross beside him, so you better believe Jesus wants to do it for you too.