Everything was falling into place. The Messiah had entered Jerusalem. Everyone was ready for Him to take up His authority. But then everything seemed to go wrong. Jesus was betrayed, tried, condemned, and crucified during the Passover festival in 30 CE, as the Gospel authors attest (Matthew 26-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 21-22, John 18-19). How did this happen? How could it be?
According to the Gospel authors, Jesus is aware of what is about to take place (Luke 9:21-22, 43-45; Matthew 26:39). During the Passover meal, He establishes a commemoration of His death with the Lord’s Supper. He and His disciples go out to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus fervently prays to the Father for deliverance if it is possible. Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, betrays Him there to the chief priests and the authorities, who then take Jesus away and put Him on trial. He is condemned to death for blasphemy in a show trial. Meanwhile, Simon Peter, one of His chief disciples, denies association with Jesus three times.
Jesus is then handed over to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. Pilate seeks to have Jesus released but is frustrated by the Jewish authorities and people. Pilate has Jesus scourged–flogged with a leather whip with embedded lead balls–intending to make Him a pathetic spectacle in order to let Him go. Nevertheless, the people choose Barabbas, a murderer and insurrectionist, and demand that Jesus be crucified. Pilate assents to their desire.
Jesus is then humiliated by Roman soldiers, having clothes taken on and off His bloodied and mostly skinless back, a crown of thorns pushed into His head, and derision and beatings. Jesus is then led out to be crucified. He was crucified with two criminals, and suffered great physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual torment. Onlookers mocked Him. The soldiers gave Him foul-tasting wine to drink. Jesus’ suffering was enormous.
Crucifixion was not invented by the Romans, but the Romans certainly put the practice to use. It is perhaps the most gruesome and painful means of execution that man has ever invented. Jesus’ crucifixion would have most likely involved the tau or T cross: the post would already have been present on Golgotha, and Jesus and Simeon would have carried the top bar, or patibulum. Jesus would have been nailed to the cross through His wrists (since the palms could not hold the weight of a man) and His ankles. Inhalation would lead to terrible pain in the ankle; exhalation, in the wrists. Death would normally eventually come from asphyxiation (because the victim would no longer be able to lift himself up to breathe), dehydration/starvation, or exposure. Jesus, however, most likely died of heart failure, having already endured the stresses of the scourging and beatings. The blood mixed with water coming forth when He was pierced is consistent with this type of death (cf. John 19:28). After Jesus died, His body was taken down and buried in the new rock-cut tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.
These were terribly tragic events. Jesus, after all, was God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14). He did not sin; He did nothing wrong (Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22)! Why, then, did Jesus have to die?
God has made it evident throughout time that He is a God of justice, love, and mercy (Psalm 34:15-16, Isaiah 30:18). When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, they introduced life-ending misery onto Earth, problems for which mankind can do nothing: sin and death (Romans 5:12-18). All mankind has sinned (Romans 3:23), and the result of sin is separation from God, our Creator and Source of life (Isaiah 59:1-2). On our own, there is nothing we can do in order to be saved– we all deserve condemnation for transgressing the holy will of God (Romans 6:23).
But God loves mankind and does not desire any to be condemned (Ezekiel 18:32, 1 Timothy 2:4). Under the covenant between God and Israel, God commanded the Israelites to offer animal sacrifices in order to atone, or cover, their sins (cf. Leviticus 5:1-6). The atonement could take place because a life was being substituted for another life: the shedding of blood allowed for the possibility of cleansing from sin (Leviticus 17:11, Hebrews 9:22).
Yet, as the Hebrew author indicates, the blood of animals cannot really take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). Complete atonement required a greater sacrifice: the Lamb of God, Jesus of Nazareth, the One who lived without sin, and thus could give His life to atone for the sins of mankind (Matthew 20:28, John 1:29, 3:16, Romans 5:1-11). Jesus’ death was given not just for the Jews, but really for all men, accomplished once for all time, killing the hostility between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:1-18, Hebrews 9:24-26). Through His death, Jesus is able to mediate a new covenant in His blood between God and man (Hebrews 9:15).
Jesus’ death, while not what the Jews expected, was necessary for Jesus to accomplish God’s purposes for Him (cf. Ephesians 3:11). His death involved great suffering, and yet it allows all men access to God through His blood. Through the cross, God in Christ conquers sin and evil, demonstrating God’s amazing love for His creation. Let us appreciate Jesus’ death and what it means for us!
Ethan R. Longhenry