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The Truth and Agony of Good Friday


What is the truth of Good Friday? It is important that Jesus died on the cross, and not just fainted so he would rise from the dead (not just out of a pain-induced coma) on Resurrection Sunday. Sceptics and scholars have tried to dispute the truth of the events concerning the torture and death of Jesus for centuries. In his book and subsequent movie, The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel investigated the events surrounding the physical death of Jesus because he could not make himself believe in the truth of Christianity. His work intrigued me so much that I decided to study the article that inspired his work in the Journal of the American Medical Association entitled “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” Although it can be gory and technical, I believe it is important to investigate what Jesus experienced on the day he died the death we deserved to die.

In the Easter story, we just walked through Holy Thursday where Jesus ended the day in the custody of the Jewish leaders and elders. Peter betrayed Jesus three times, and the rooster crowed signalling daybreak.

The account of Good Friday can be read in Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23 and John 18-19.

The Jewish leaders and elders have Jesus in custody but need the permission of the Roman authorities before they can kill him. For this reason, Jesus is taken to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the area. Pilate wouldn’t care if Jesus was guilty of blasphemy. Thus the Jews must accuse him of things Pilate would be concerned about like encouraging tax evasion, claiming he is king instead of Ceasar, and causing riots. None of these accusations are true and Pilate knows it. He asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews and Jesus answers “You have said it,” (Matthew 27:11-12). With further accusations, Jesus remains silent and does not defend himself. Pilate feels threatened by the Jews and worried about an uprising over Passover which would cost him his political position. So, although he knows Jesus is innocent, he is forced to act. This whole time Jesus remains self-assured and at relative peace since he probably does not want the trial to be delayed further. Pilate tries all sorts of measures to get Jesus acquitted without angering the Jews, like trying to free him for Passover instead of Barabbas and sending him to Herod of Antipas. When these attempts fail he hands Jesus over to the people to be tortured and eventually crucified.

On the Physical Death of Jesus - scourging practices in time of Jesus
Scourging. Left, Short whip (flagrum) with lead balls and sheep bones tied into leather thongs.
Centre-left, Naked victim tied to flogging post. Deep stripelike lacerations were usually associated with considerable blood loss. Center right, View from above, showing the position of lictors. Right, Inferomedial direction of wounds. – Source

Flogging, or scourging, was a legal preliminary to Roman execution through crucifixion. For this method of torture, the criminal’s hands are tied to a large pole and he is whipped with a three-pronged leather whip with lead balls and sheep bones bound on the ends of each prong. Two soldiers would take turns to flog the prisoner from each side for up to 40 lashes to weaken the man into a state just short of collapse or death. The iron balls would cause bruises and the sheep bones and leather would cut into the skin. As the flogging progresses the lacerations would become deeper and cut into the muscle, causing ribbons of bleeding flesh to be torn from the back. The extensive pain and blood loss would cause the prisoner to go into circulatory shock. During the flogging, soldiers mocked Jesus, slapped him and struck him with fists in his face.

Jesus carries the cross
Used with permission by Jan van’t Hoff

After the flogging, they wrapped a royal robe around his soldiers and placed a crown of thorns on his head. They gave him a wooden sceptre in his hand, which they eventually used to hit him over the head. When they were finished, they tore the robe off his back which probably aggravated the wounds he sustained during the scourging. (Matthew 27:27-30)

Needless to say, Jesus was already in agonizing pain before he even picked up the cross. His body was probably weak from lack of food, water, and sleep as well as the emotional trauma he had already suffered the night before. Yet the worst was to come.

On the Physical Death of Jesus - Cross dimensions in time of Jesus
Cross and titulus. Left: the victim, carrying a crossbar (patibulum) to the site of the upright post (stipes).
Center Low Tau cross (crux commissa), commonly used by Romans at the time of Christ.

Upper right, Rendition of Jesus’ titulus with name and crime—Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews—written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Lower right: Possible methods for attaching titles to the Tau cross (left) and Latin cross (right).Source

The way the cross used for crucifixion was designed was that the vertical stipe would be permanently fixed outside the city. This was probably where Golgotha got its name “Place of the Skull”. The prisoner would carry the horizontal part of the cross, called the patibulum, for a long stretch outside the city to serve as a warning to others. Jesus struggled to carry his cross and Simon from Cyrene was commanded to help him with the load. Jesus probably felt some relief and gratitude at the small temporary relief. This crossbar weighed approximately 34 to 57 kg. That is the weight of a small person on your, already injured, back. When the prisoner reaches the place of crucifixion, he is thrown with his back down onto the patibulum where the scourging wounds would be reopened again and contaminated with dirt. He is then given a drink of bitter wine mixed with myrrh as an analgesic. The wrists are then nailed to the crossbar with tapered iron spikes of about 13 to 18 cm in length. This would cause painful injury to the ligaments and bones and could crush the nerve to stimulate jolts of pain along both arms.

On the Physical Death of Jesus - Nails through the wrist
Nailing of wrists. Left: Size of iron nail. Centre: Location of the nail in the wrist, between carpals and radius.
Right: Cross section of the wrist, at the level of plane indicated at left, showing the path of the nail, with probable transection of median nerve and impalement of flexor pollicis longus, but without injury to major arterial trunks and without fractures of bones.Source

The Roman soldiers lift the patibulum onto the stipe and the feet are nailed to the cross, approximately in the middle of the foot. This would cause further piercing pain.

On the Physical Death of Jesus - Nail through the foot
Nailing of feet. Left: Position of feet atop one another and against stipes.
Upper right: Location of the nail in the second intermetatarsal space.
Lower right: Cross section of the foot, at the plane, indicated at left, showing the path of the nail.
Source

At this stage, Jesus was mostly naked and the guards cast lots for his garments, as prophesied in Psalm 22:18. It was customary to make a sign with the prisoner’s name and crime and nail it to the top of the cross. Pilate wrote “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews,” on Jesus’ sign. While Jesus was hanging from the cross the onlookers mocked him by asking him where his God was and how he could rebuild the temple from the cross. Jesus was probably in deep despair, as most of his disciples who knew the truth and believed in his power were nowhere to be seen. Yet Jesus’ mother Mary was standing near the cross with a few other women and the apostle John. Even while enduring all this pain Jesus looks at his mother and is concerned for her wellbeing. He says to her “Dear woman, here is your son“. And he said to the disciple “Here is your mother.” And from then on the disciple [John] took her into his home.” (John 19:26-27)

Jesus on the cross on Golgotha
Used with permission by Jan van’t Hoff

As Jesus is hanging on the cross, he prays the most unbelievable prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus is asking God to forgive the people who are putting him to death while he is hanging from nails in his palms and struggling to breathe. God answered Jesus’ prayer by granting salvation even to his murderers. Jesus was dying the most horrible, painful death any human can suffer, and even in his suffering is praying for those responsible. The Roman soldiers exclaimed “This man truly was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54) and many of the priests were converted to the Christian faith in Acts 6:7. Because we are all sinners, we all played a part in Jesus being put to death. Fortunately, God is gracious and will forgive us and give us a new life through his Son.

At noon the sky became dark and was followed by an earthquake. At three o’clock Jesus called out “Eloi, Eloi, lem a sabacthani” meaning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” (Matthew 27:46). This was perhaps the moment where Jesus felt the separation from God, the moment he dreaded the most in the days leading up to his death. He was also quoting from the prophecy in Psalm 22:1.

On the Physical Death of Jesus - Respiration death on the cross
Respirations during crucifixion. Left: Inhalation. With elbows extended and shoulders abducted, respiratory muscles of inhalation are passively stretched and the thorax is expanded. Right, Exhalation. With elbows flexed and shoulders adducted and with the weight of the body on nailed feet, exhalation is accomplished as an active, rather than passive, process. Breaking legs below knees would place the burden of exhalation on shoulder and arm muscles alone and soon would result in exhaustion asphyxia.Source

The most agonizing part of crucifixion, and the most common cause of death, is poor respiration (breathing). The body is positioned on the cross in a fixed inhalation state (breathing in). To be able to exhale the prisoner would have to physically pull himself up on the arms, twisting the nails in his palms and pushing up with his feet. This would be so unbearable that he would resolve to shallow breaths when necessary. Because not enough air is expired, the body would suffer carbon dioxide toxicity causing muscle cramps and eventually suffocation. The body would also undergo shock, dehydration and heart failure.

The prisoner could survive from three hours up to three to four days on the cross, depending on how severe the scourging was. If the prisoner takes too long to die, the guards will break their legs causing instant death. Insects and birds would start feeding on the wounds before the prisoner could breathe his last breath. Jesus probably died quickly because the flogging had been so severe. Some scientists believe that he might have suffered a terminal cardiac event like a heart attack, right before he shouted the words “It is finished” and died (John 19:30).

When the Roman guards wanted to ensure that Jesus was dead, they pierced his side with a sword causing blood and water to flow from the wound. It is theorized that his lungs could have been filled with fluid, which was observed as water seeping from the wound, shortly followed by water. This was a sure sign that Jesus was dead and challenged all those who tried to deny his death to dispute his resurrection.

The word “excruciating” originates from the Latin word excruciatus or “out of the cross”. Therefore, death by crucifixion was in every sense of the word – excruciating.

Good Friday agony of the cross Pinterest image

The bodies of the prisoners had to be removed and buried before sundown which marked the start of the Jewish Sabbath when no work or travelling was allowed. Joseph of Arimathea was a rich Jewish leader and a secret follower of Jesus. He asked Pilate for Jesus’ body and was granted permission. He removed Jesus’ body from the cross, wrapped him in linen cloth and placed him in a new tomb. He rolled a stone in front of the tomb with Mary and Mary Magdalene watching from afar. The Roman guards watched over the grave.

Jesus was dead. But not for long…

We must grasp that Jesus did not have to endure any of this. He did nothing wrong. He could have called on God at any moment and asked God to relieve him from the suffering.

He endured this agony for you and me – because he loves us!

In his book King’s Cross, Timothy Keller explains that only Jesus is capable of true love – the kind of love where “your aim is to spend yourself for the happiness of the other because your greatest joy is that person’s joy. Therefore your affection is unconditional: You give it regardless of whether your loved one is meeting your needs. And it’s radically vulnerable: You spend everything, hold nothing back, give it all away.”

Jesus had to shed his blood for the payment of all sin to be recognized by God. In these moments, he knew he would shortly be reunited with his Father and sit at his right hand in Heaven. He could have imagined the miracle that would be worked on every soul as our sins would be forgiven in the future and we could be reconciled with God one day in His Eternal Kingdom. But even the most perfect imagination would have needed supernatural strength to endure such suffering.

This strength is Perfect Love.

Knowing what Christ endured on our behalf should create the deepest gratitude and humble confidence in us to know we are as loved as anyone can ever be.

Is it even Easter if we don’t sing In Christ Alone?


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