Yesterday we walked with Jesus through Holy Thursday where he ended the day in the custody of the Jewish leaders and elders. Peter has just betrayed Jesus three times, and the rooster has crowed signaling daybreak.
It is Good Friday.
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 so the Jews must accuse him of things Pilate would concern himself with namely encouraging tax evasion, claiming he is king 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 just remains silent and does not defend himself. Pilate is 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 any 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, but eventually, he hands Jesus over to the people to be crucified.
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.
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 scepter in his hand, which they eventually used to hit him with 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. The worst was yet to come.
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 as “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 was struggling 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 fill 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.
The patibulum is then lifted onto the stipe by the Roman soldiers and the feet are nailed to the cross, approximately in the middle of the foot. This would cause further piercing pain.
At this stage, Jesus was mostly naked and the guards cast lots for his garments, as it is prophesied in Psalm 22:18. It was customary to make a sign with the prisoner’s name and crime and nail 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 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)
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 for us, 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.
The most agonizing part of crucifixion, and the most common cause of death, is poor respiration (breathing). The way the body is positioned on the cross is fixed in the 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 to four 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 was even dead. 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 challenges all those who try to deny his death in order to dispute his resurrection.
Excruciating originates from the Latin word excruciatus or “out of the cross”. Therefore, death by crucifixion was in every sense of the word – excruciating.
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 have to understand that Jesus did not have to endure any of this. He did not do anything wrong. He could call on God at any moment and ask God to relieve him from the suffering. But he did it for us – 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 remission of sins to be recognized by God. Perhaps in these moments, he knew that in a few short weeks he would 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. This knowledge should create in us the deepest gratitude and humble confidence to know we are as loved as any being can ever be.
Here is a beautiful hymn that can remind us of the life of Jesus Christ:
This post was part of a Bible Study series that I wrote to connect with my friends during the COVID-19 lockdown.
I am not a pastor, nor do I have theological training. I am a follower of Jesus and the daughter of my Heavenly Father that enjoys studying and discussing Scripture with others.
The resources I used for this study are listed below.
All colour illustrations are from www.jw.org