Commentary by Walter Albritton
Key Verse: And they took Jesus, and led him away. And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha: where they crucified him. – John 19:16b-18.
John did not explain the meaning of crucifixion. There was no need. The people understood; they had seen many people crucified by the Romans. Crucifixion was always public, possibly in the hope that it would serve as a deterrent to crime. John says simply that they led Jesus away and crucified him. Even small children knew what that meant.
Roman citizens were spared this dehumanizing form of
execution. They reserved crucifixion for slaves, non-Roman enemies of
The Romans did not invent crucifixion as a method of execution. They learned it from the Greeks. However, the Romans “perfected” it in one sense. They fine-tuned the method. By that I mean that they devised ways to make it more painful and for the victim not to die quickly but to suffer many hours, sometimes days before dying.
The metal spikes were driven into the victim’s wrists at the precise place where the main nerve to the hand would be severed. It is this nerve that causes us such intense pain when we hit our “funny bone.” Rupturing this nerve made it extremely painful for the victim to use his arms to push his body upward in a desperate effort to breathe.
Another “improvement” involved the victim’s feet. They were raised up slightly, with the knees bent a little, before being nailed to the cross. This enabled the criminal to breathe for a longer period of time by pushing himself upward on the cross, allowing the lungs to expand a little. The effort to breathe, of course, was rewarded by dreadful pain. Had the legs and feet been allowed to hang down unrestrained, death would have come more swiftly.
The pain of crucifixion was so terrible that a new word was coined to explain it: excruciating. In Latin, the word means “from the cross.” Now, whenever we use this word, we can let it remind us of our Lord Jesus. In addition, we can reserve its use for the worst kind of pain, which is its true meaning. We do well to remember, especially in this holy season, that the pain Jesus endured by flagellation and on the cross was agonizing and almost unbearable. In other words, excruciating.
Critics have accused Mel Gibson of going too far by turning the body of Jesus into a bloody mess. These critics likely have not read the prophecy of Isaiah. The prophet wrote of the Suffering Servant:
“His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness” (Isaiah 52:14).
“Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3).
Perhaps Gibson was more faithful to the biblical narrative than we thought. One thing is certain: when John said, “they crucified him,” he left out many gruesome details. The truth is Jesus may have been more cruelly beaten and bloody than even Gibson imagined. What we need to realize, and be thankful for, is that our precious Lord suffered unbearable pain so that we might be saved from our sins. That is a fact, perhaps the most awful fact in human history – God suffering and dying on a cross out of love for his creation. Here was God offering Jesus, “the Lamb of God,” to be sacrificed on the altar of sin so that we might be reconciled to God!
Despite the brutal pain of dying on the cross, Jesus was not beyond recognizing and caring for his mother, Mary. John describes the incredibly beautiful moment when Jesus sees his mother and speaks to her. By now, though all the disciples had deserted Jesus earlier, John has returned. He is standing near the cross with Mary and a few others who were witnessing the crucifixion.
Jesus finds enough breath to say to her, “Woman, behold thy son,” and to John, “Behold thy mother!” He wanted Mary to trust John to care for her. He wanted John to provide for her as though she were his own mother. We can only observe as the songwriter did, “Did ‘ere such love and sorrow flow mingled down?” Imagine one in agony thinking of others rather than his own suffering! We can easily imagine Jesus thirsty for drink, but this baffles our imagination. This expression of love for Mary is almost as unthinkable as his asking the Father to forgive those who had nailed him to the cross!
As we reflect on the meaning of the crucifixion, we should ask what we are doing, as followers of the Lamb, to show our gratitude for Jesus’ great sacrifice. Does our daily lifestyle suggest that his suffering and death made a difference in the way we think and live? Do we intentionally make choices that are inspired by “so great a love”? When we gaze upon a lovely brass cross on the altar, does it remind us to give thanks that he died there for us? Does the way we spend our time, and our money, suggest to others that we “belong to Jesus”?
The next time you walk near a cross, perhaps at the altar of your church, take the time to kneel and pray. Tell Him that you love Him for what He did for you. Ask Him to fill you with his Spirit so that you can live for Him. Then get up and do your best to do just that -- live your whole life for Him, until He calls you home. You will have pain and trouble, despite your commitment, but you will never regret a single moment of living like a child of the King!
Sometimes we sing an inspiring chorus in church that contains these words:
“Change my heart, O God, may I be like you.” Any discussion of the crucifixion will have little value unless it leads us to pray like that – “Change my heart, O God”!
+ + + + (Walter may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)