Jesus has been betrayed, arrested, judged, scourged, and is now hanging from a cross, each breath requiring searing pain to shoot from nailed hands and feet as he would be forced to pull himself up against gravity to refill his lungs with oxygen.
Consider this graphic but realistic description:
The Romans used a whip called a flagrum, which consisted of small pieces of bone and metal attached to a number of leather strands. The number of blows given to Jesus is not recorded; however, the number of blows in Jewish law was 39 (one less than the 40 called for in the Torah, to prevent a counting error). During the scourging, the skin was ripped from the back, exposing a bloody mass of tissue and bone… The mechanism of death in crucifixion was suffocation. To breathe, the victim was forced to push up on his feet to allow for inflation of the lungs. As the body weakened and pain in the feet and legs became unbearable, the victim was forced to trade breathing for pain and exhaustion. Eventually, the victim would succumb in this way, becoming utterly exhausted or lapsing into unconsciousness so that he could no longer lift his body off the stipes and inflate his lungs. Due to the shallow breathing, the victim’s lungs would begin to collapse in areas, probably causing hypoxia. Due to the loss of blood from the scourging, the victim probably formed a respiratory acidosis, resulting in an increased strain on the heart, which beats faster to compensate. Fluid would also build up in the lungs. Under the stress of hypoxia and acidosis, the heart would eventually fail.”
Physically, it was a slow and excruciatingly painful death designed to prevent rebellion and curb heinous crimes. It could take days for the convicted to die. As a form of punishment reserved for the worst of the worst, much like the electric chair today, it was the last way anyone wanted to go.
With crucifixion, the Romans had perfected the ultimate form of torture, unconcerned that the recipient of such a sentence have his dignity preserved as is the case with contemporary executions, which largely are private matters where death is intended to be administered in a controlled, humane environment. Yes, there are sad exceptions, with the closest modern example we have of crucifixion being a public hanging.
But it wasn’t only the bodily torture that was woven into the purpose of Roman execution. Crucifixion was intended to be the ultimate experience of humiliation. The convicted would be raised on the crossbeams naked, fully exposed with arms wide, unable to cover their shame. Adding insult to injury, passers by would mock, jeer, and spit upon the convicted.
Mark 15:29–32 tells us,
Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way, the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”
Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
The heaping of insults and mockery would have lasted hours, unrelenting verbal abuse, to which Jesus made no reply or defense.
Why? How was Jesus so restrained, especially when he could have called down a host of angelic warriors to smite the voices of condemnation?
Ironically, he was doing exactly what they claimed he couldn’t.
They looked and concluded that Jesus couldn’t be a Savior or a King. Look at him. Miserable. Weak. Powerless. They charged him with impotence.
But if we look more closely, what we see is not impotence but total authority and control, as Jesus allows their hard, sinful hearts to leverage God’s eternal plan of rescue for sinners just like them… and like me.
I would have spat in self-righteous indignation, too. How dare Jesus call me a sinner. I may not be perfect, but I’m more righteous than [insert pet sinner here].
Jesus said that those who were the most outwardly unrighteous were entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of the outwardly righteous Pharisees, priests, and teachers of the law. How is that possible?
Answer: They more easily could perceive their need for mercy.
As Tim Keller has said, “The world is not divided between good and bad people; it is divided between proud and humble people.” Only the humble can enter the kingdom. Like children. Dependents. Those who cannot save themselves but must be saved by someone else.
In the 17th century, the Dutch artist, Rembrandt, painted The Raising of the Cross with a portrait of himself in the background, present for the proceedings, knowing that it was his sin that required the King of Glory to die for Rembrandt’s sin. The painting represents personal awareness of one’s need for God’s mercy through a substitute.
This is why Jesus offered no rebuttal from the cross when derided by the crowd. He was serving as a sinner substitute, fulfilling the Father’s plan of which Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21,
“He (God the Father) made him (God the Son, Jesus) who had never sinned to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
While God is not the author of sin, he permitted sinful men to “do what they do,” weaving their evil act as an essential thread in the tapestry of redemption.
As Peter would preach in Acts 2, “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”
God’s deliberate plan.
The God who is sovereign over sin, worked in all things — even through the injustice of Jesus’s crucifixion — to bring about ultimate good. Or as Joseph would say to his brothers, “What you meant for evil, the Lord intended for good, the saving of many lives.”
Joseph had to be the object of his brothers’ jealousy. He had to be sold into slavery. He had to be imprisoned under false charges. He had to be forgotten. He had to lose the prime years of his life.
All these hardships had to take place for Joseph, at just the right time, to rise to chief administrator of food distribution over Egypt during a massive drought which threatened countless lives in that region with starvation. Joseph would become a savior. Most amazingly, foreshadowing Jesus, he would be the savior for those who had hated him, imprisoned him, and forgotten him.
For Jesus, the only way he could save others was not to save himself. He had to endure jealousy, betrayal, abandonment, and finally, crucifixion. In fact, the words of condemnation coming from the crowd were nothing compared to the real condemnation from the law he was experiencing in his soul. Not condemnation for his sin but for mine.
On the cross, everything he experienced, I should have experienced. Do you see that this means? Jesus was condemned in my place. My sin debt has been paid and the sentence served for my crimes. My shame has been covered.
As Jesus would say, “It is finished!” And now I am free.
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