In the first century A.D., The Roman empire stretched across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. This was a time of peace, called the Pax Romana, where the Roman government was able to manage all of the various languages and cultures under its single rule.
However, the thought of revolution terrified the Roman government. Rome needed to control a massive empire with a much smaller force. Any revolts in the Roman provinces could cause a disaster. The Roman governors in various provinces must keep the peace at all costs!
Rome’s most effective way to keep peace in the provinces was through fear and intimidation. Any man who was caught trying to revolt against Rome would be made an example. He would be subjected to one of the most cruel, lingering, and public executions ever devised by mankind: the crucifixion.5
Crucifixion was invented by the Assyrians and the Persians as a way to execute a condemned criminal away from their “mother earth”.6 However, the Romans had taken and perfected the crucifixion into a hideous instrument of torture and death.
According to Josephus, more than a thousand people were crucified by Rome on 33 A.D.9 By that year, the Romans had also crucified more than 3,000 men in Palestine alone.10
The crucifixion was intended to be cruel.5 The shame and the horror that were dealt on the victim were more than we can even imagine. The victim was first scourged, being beaten so severely that his back was cut open, exposing raw flesh (see here). The victim himself would carry the wooden crossbeam through the city to the place of execution. At the place of execution, the soldiers would remove the victim’s clothes, then drive large nails through the victim’s wrists, nailing him to the crossbeam.7 Soldiers would then lift the crossbeam onto a permanent post (about 6 feet tall). Finally, another large spike would be driven through the victim’s feet and into the post.
The crucifixion was so painful that the word “excruciating” came from this experience. The crucifixion was so shameful that proper folk would not use this word in public.6
“There is one difference between a guillotine and a cross: the guillotine was designed to be merciful; the cross was designed to be hideously cruel.” – Doug Bookman5
The crucifixion was intended to be lingering. A person cannot properly breathe when suspended by his arms, but the Romans placed a wooden seat, or “sedulum” on the cross. This allowed the victim to push himself up to breathe, but it also prolonged the agony for up to a week.6 The victims would finally die from shock, blood loss, exposure, predators, or suffocation. The soldiers could hasten the victim’s death by breaking his legs, thereby forcing the victim to quickly suffocate to death.
The crucifixion was also public. The Romans would place the crucified victims on a low hill outside the city gates, where people would commonly pass. Everyone who passed by and looked at the dying victims on the crosses would be afraid to go against the power of Rome.
Finally, the crucifixion was a guaranteed death. The attending Roman soldiers needed to personally guarantee that the victim was dead before he was removed from the cross. If there was any life left in the victim after he was removed from the cross, every one of the attending soldiers would be put on crosses.
When Jesus humbled Himself and came to earth, he chose this death, the death by crucifixion, in order to pay for the sin of all mankind!
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
“Christ was on the point of making atonement for sin, therefore sin must be revealed in all its enormity.” – A. W. Pink8
It was customary for four Roman soldiers to be assigned to a prisoner that was sentenced to crucifixion. We have no reason to believe that it was any different for Jesus’ crucifixion. The four soldiers would tie the prisoner’s arms to the crossbeam and lead him through the city streets to the place of execution. They would carry a sign containing the list of the prisoner’s crimes for all to see.
The sign for Jesus had only one statement, written in three languages, “The King of the Jews”. This so infuriated the Jewish leaders that they immediately petitioned Pontius Pilate to have this sign changed. Pilate refused.
Pilate surely intended for his sign to show that “This is the best of the Jews, and he is no match for Rome!” or, “This is the best of the Jews, and they want to kill him!” Little did Pilate know that this sign would be the first written notice of who Jesus truly was.
At some point along the way, Jesus was unable to carry the crossbeam at the pace for the Romans. The soldiers pressed a passing traveler, Simon of Cyrene, into carrying the crossbeam for Jesus.
They led Jesus from Herod’s palace to the north of the city, the “place of the skull”, or Golgotha. Once they reached Golgotha, they stripped Him of His clothes and nailed His wrists to the crossbeam. They then placed the crossbeam on the post and completed the crucifixion by nailing his feet to the cross.
It was 9:00 a.m.
The four soldiers divided up Jesus’ personal belongings among themselves. One took His turban, another His outer cloak, another His belt, and the last one took His shoes. Jesus had a seamless inner tunic which could not be divided so they gambled for it. Little did these pagan Roman soldiers know that they helped to fulfill a thousand-year-old prophecy about the Messiah:
They divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
Jesus was silent during this time but now He spoke. Looking at the Roman soldiers dividing up His clothing, he said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He did not just say it once, but repeatedly. For every roll of the “dice”, as they fought over His clothes, Jesus repeated, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Jesus was now the public spectacle. He was soon taunted by all of the people who passed by. The travelers taunted Him, believing that He was going to destroy the temple. The Jewish leaders made a special trip from the temple to counter Pilate’s sign, and now followed the travelers in their own taunts of Jesus on the cross. The Roman soldiers, on duty for the crucifixion, also joined in the same taunts at Him.
But Jesus was not alone. He was crucified between two robbers, who also joined in the chorus of taunts against Him. Even the men condemned to die threw the same abuse at Him!
One of the robbers stopped his taunting and looked at the sign above Jesus. He knew that Jesus was innocent and he read the sign saying that He is the king of the Jews. He looked at the sign and believed.
He then stopped the other robber from his taunting, “Do you not fear God? We deserve our punishment but this man has done nothing wrong!” Then, turning to Jesus, he said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus replied to the robber with His second statement from the cross, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” The robber who repented would be with Jesus that day!
There was one final scene during the first three hours on the cross. A small group of faithful women were standing near the cross, including Mary, Jesus’ mother. Jesus’ third statement from the cross was to give his mother to the care of the disciple John.
It was three hours since Jesus was nailed to the cross at Golgotha. In the eyes of the world around Him, He was simply a Roman prisoner who was executed that day. He showed no power, nor did He defend Himself against the crowds of people who abused Him.
But in the midst of the agony and the shame, He made three very personal statements:
- Forgiveness for the ignorant men who caused His pain
- A way to heaven for the wicked man who believed in Him
- Care for the faithful ones who stood with Him
May we learn to love and appreciate the sacrifice that our Lord Jesus Christ made on our behalf. He gave Himself so that we may live.
May we thank Him as we identify with the different groups of people around the cross, that we would ask for forgiveness and be faithful to Him.
May we let Him be our example as we endure suffering in our world. He committed Himself to the all-knowing God (1 Peter 2:23-25).
On a gray April morning as a chilling wind blew
A thousand dark promises were about to come true
As Satan stood trembling, knowing now he had lost
As the Lamb took his first step on the way to the cross
They mocked his true calling and laughed at His fate
So glad to see the Gentle One consumed by their hate
Unaware of the wind and the darkening sky
So blind to the fact that it was God limping by
The poor women weeping at what seemed a great loss
Trembling in fear there at the foot of the cross
Tormented by memories that came like a flood
Unaware that their pardon
Must be bought with His blood
This must be the Lamb
The fulfillment of all God had spoken
This must be the Lamb
Not a single bone will be broken
Like a sheep to the slaughter
So silently still
This must be the Lamb
– Michael Card
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