I’ve read three or four medical accounts of the crucifixion. They are graphic and gut-wrenching. If you remember the movie, The Passion of the Christ, it showed both the flogging and the crucifixion in very graphic realism. I’m glad the movie was made – it made me realize as I had never understood before what a terrible price Jesus paid.
But the Gospel writers don’t embellish the account. None of them describe the details. They say simply, “they crucified him.” Everyone who read their accounts in the first century had seen a crucifixion; the agonizing screams had pierced their hearts and engraved themselves in their memories.
What we know of crucifixion we learn outside of the Gospels. There are secular writings that describe it in detail. From every account, it was the most horrible, excruciating death imaginable. It was designed not simply for death, but for the torture that accompanied it. Crucifixion was invented by the Persians, but it was perfected by the Romans. It was not a quick death, but a very cruel death. A person who was crucified, and they numbered in the thousands, sometimes lasted two or three days on the cross before death mercifully ended their life. It was intended to teach a very graphic object lesson to other potential criminals.
Death by crucifixion was restricted to slaves and criminals, not the upper social classes. And for this reason, it was a death chosen not only to end a life, but to effectively humiliate and discredit. For the common people, if there was any doubt about how Rome and the Jewish leadership felt about Jesus, this was the official position.
As with the trial, so with the crucifixion: no single Gospel writer chronicles all of the details of this day. And what John writes, he writes with specific purpose. He has a point to make and certain details are especially important to him. John focuses our attention on five specific details:
1) The title which Pilate had posted over the cross
2) The dividing of the garments
3) The entrusting of Jesus’ mother to his beloved disciple
4) The final moments before his death
5) The burial
Let’s begin where John begins, following Pilates’ handing Jesus over to the soldiers to be crucified:
So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle. Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.” (Jn 19:16-22)
Three times in his inquisition of Jesus, Pilate came out to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” In spite of that, the Jewish leaders manipulated, blackmailed and extorted Pilate into handing down the death sentence they were demanding. But in one last jab at the Jews, Pilate has a sign prepared and fastened to the cross above Jesus, declaring in Aramaic, Latin and Greek, so that all who passed by could read, JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS
It wasn’t that Pilate had come to believe in Jesus, but that he detested the Jews. But in much the same way as later believers in Jesus in Antioch would be called Christians, as a title of derision and scorn, it was prophetically true. They were “little Christs.” And so, Pilate’s sign, though unintended irony, declared the truth, Jesus is King.
The Jewish leaders are enraged (but then again, they seemed to stay in a constant state of rage when it came to Jesus). They demand that Pilate change the sign, but Pilate thumbs his nose at them and says, “What I have written, I have written.” Pilate gets the last word.
John’s second focus is on the soldiers following the crucifixion: When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.” This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said, “They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” So this is what the soldiers did. (Jn 19:23-24)
For the Roman soldiers, this is just another day at the office. They casually, carelessly gamble for his clothes, unaware of the awesome significance of what is happening just feet away.
But they also have a role to play. Even as they gamble for Jesus’ clothes, John sees the fulfillment of scripture. In fact, everything that happens is the fulfillment of God’s plan. Whether it is Jesus, poignantly aware of scripture, saying “I am thirsty,” or an ignorant, unwitting Roman soldier piercing his side instead of breaking his legs, John points out to his readers that all that is happening is the fulfillment of prophecy, nothing is accidental or coincidental. God has been directing this drama from the very beginning.
In a book written several years ago, The Robe, and in a movie made last year, Risen, both follow fictional characters of a Roman centurion and a Roman legate whose lives are deeply and permanently affected by their participation in the crucifixion. And both, very realistically, suggest that one could not go away from this event untouched.
What we see clearly in John’s Gospel is that the cross is the focus of all history. From as early as the book of Genesis to the final words in the book of Revelation, the cross is the pivot. All of the past pointed to it, and all the future will depend upon it. It is the great triumph of heaven – God come to earth. It is the greatest tragedy of earth – God rejected by man. It is not Satan or the Jewish leaders or Pilate or the Roman soldiers who were orchestrating it, but God himself, whose plan to redeem his fallen creation rested upon God himself taking the sins of the world upon him and becoming the perfect Passover lamb who was sacrificed upon the cross to free his people.
In John’s own autobiographical cameo appearance, he next describes Jesus’ concern for the care and welfare of his mother, Mary: Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (Jn 19:25-27)
In his selfless humility, John never identifies himself as that disciple, but without a doubt, he is the one. And I’m sure, even as he writes these words some sixty years later, he remembers the tenderness of the voice, the agony of the pain his death is causing his mother. I’m sure it was also a final display, even at the point of death, of Jesus’ selfless concern more for his mother than for himself.
And now John turns to the final moments of the cross: Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (Jn 19:28-30)
As I said at the beginning, no single Gospel gives us all the details or records all of the sayings of Jesus from the cross, between the four Gospels there are seven final sayings. John tells us about two of them: Jesus says, “I am thirsty.” When they give him a sip of wine vinegar from a sponge lifted up on a long stalk of a hyssop plant, Jesus says, “It is finished.” All is now completed. Everything that Jesus came to do and accomplish has been fulfilled, and he dies.
He did not die in a panic or with a struggle. As we have noted so many times, in Jesus own words, his life was not taken from him, he gave it willingly for the sins of the world.
[Picture – Soldiers] For the Romans and the Jews, concerns now turn to lesser matters: Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.” (Jn 19:31-37)
Those who had brought about the murder of the son of God are concerned with their own ceremonial uncleanness of this day of Preparation for the Passover. The Romans are concerned with making sure their task is complete. Rarely would a victim be dead after such a short stay on the cross. Mercifully, they would break his legs and, no longer able to life his body to breath, he would quickly asphyxiate and die. But when they came to Jesus, he was already dead. Unwilling to leave the job undone, the soldier drives a spear into his side and out comes blood and water mixed together. What to him was merely a job to do, to us is the very moment of redemption. The blood which Jesus shed for our sins has been shed. We are washed clean.
John describes the events that follow: Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. (Jn 19:38-42)
Two men step forward to take the body of Jesus and prepare it for burial – not his disciples, not anonymous nobodies, but two very important man who had everything to lose and nothing to gain by their act of kindness and mercy. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, prominent Pharisees and members of the ruling council of the Jews, the Sanhedrin, humbly doing the work of servants. When we met Nicodemus back in John 3, the conversation ended without closure. We were left to wonder. Nicodemus, at the time, seemed unconvinced, and yet now here he is laying his own life on the line to do a kindness to the Savior. Never discount, never underestimate the power which the word of Jesus might have in the life of anyone, high or low.
Up until now it’s been a nice story about a king coming down from his castle dressed as a pauper visiting his kingdom and his subjects. Unrecognized, misunderstood and rejected, he still treats them with love and compassion. Now death approaches the town. Instead of fleeing to the safety of his castle, he goes out singlehandedly and meets death on the hill and in one selfless sacrifice takes the death of everyone upon himself to save his precious subjects.
I am convinced that if we, in this room, were the only ones who had ever lived, it would not have changed a thing. If we were the only ones who needed to be saved by his death and purified by his blood, he would have gone to the cross just as willingly and as deliberately as he did then.
If you go home this morning, not convinced that God wants you to be with him in heaven and would go to any length and pay any cost to bring it about, you have missed the entire point of this chapter and really of the entire Gospel.
The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial is striking in its simplicity. Etched in a black granite wall are the names of 58,156 Americans who died in that war. Since its opening in 1982, the stark monument has stirred deep emotions among its visitors. Some walk its length slowly, reverently and without pause. Others stop before certain names, remembering their son or husband or fellow soldier, wiping away tears, tracing the names with their fingers. For three Vietnam veterans – Robert Bedker, Willard Craig and Darrall Lausch – a visit to the memorial must be especially poignant, for they can walk up to the long ebony wall and find their own names carved in the stone. Because of data errors, each of them was incorrectly listed as killed in action, and they find their names alongside the names of their friends and brothers who were killed.
Dead, but alive – isn’t that the perfect description of a Christian? Paul writes, I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)