Crucifixion and death

The long night was over. It was time for Pilate to make his decision: what would he do with Jesus? It seems that over the years much has been said, speculated and emphasised about the agony that Jesus went through as he was beaten up and crucified, and rightly so. What is of note in John’s account of these traumatic days is that he says very little about what Jesus was experiencing and going through.

As we will see, the focus is on the turmoil in Pilate’s mind, the implacable hatred of the Jews, the loyalty of the women and the ‘coming out’ of the secret disciples (Nicodemus and Joseph). What did they do with Jesus? Indeed it seems that John wants to confront us all with the question: What will you do with Jesus?

  1. The sentence

Pilate was in a difficult position. As we will see in the first part of this chapter, he was rightly convinced that Jesus was an innocent man. The problem for Pilate was how to deal with the Jews and the Jewish leaders. They wanted Jesus dead and would cause untold trouble if they did not get their way. Rioting and unrest were bad for Pilate’s reputation and standing in the Roman system. Would he opt for the quiet life and do as the Jewish leaders wanted? On the other hand, would he do the right thing and release an innocent man?

It seems that Pilate’s tactic was to do enough to satisfy the Jews but not as much as having Jesus killed. Thus he had Jesus flogged and allowed his soldiers to mock Jesus. The flogging seems to have been of a moderate to severe type at this stage. The Romans had three levels of flogging from light whipping to brutal flogging. Having beaten Jesus and mocked him with a crown of thorns and purple robe, Pilate presented Jesus once again to the Jews. He was presented to them dressed in the purple robe, wearing the crown of thorns and doubtless showing the marks of flogging too. Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’  He added that he could find no basis for a charge against him. Pilate’s tactic seemed to be that he would hope not to have Jesus crucified and that he could satisfy the demands of the Jews by mocking and beating Jesus. The response of the Jews however was not what he had hoped: ‘Crucify, crucify.’ Pilate clearly didn’t know what to do and said ‘you take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.’ He knew that under Roman law this was not possible, but at this stage, all he wanted was to be free of this dilemma. They Jewish leaders’ response was that Jesus had broken their law and therefore must die. The charge was that Jesus claimed to be the son of God. A claim that Jesus was equal with God.

Pilate was afraid. His plan had gained no traction. What now? He re-entered his house to talk again to Jesus. ‘Where do you come from?’  Pilate seemed to some extent, to want to understand just exactly who Jesus was, and how things had reached this difficult stage. Jesus did not respond to the question – and understandably, a frustrated Pilate reminded Jesus that he held the power to free or crucify. To this, Jesus did respond: ‘you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’ God had delegated his authority to Pilate. Since it was in God’s plan and purpose that Jesus should die for the sins of the world, was it thus inevitable that Pilate had to have Jesus crucified, that Judas had to betray him and that the Jews should demand his death? I think not. It is inconceivable that God would fore-ordain the wicked acts of Pilate, Judas and the Jews. However it seems entirely right to understand that God could use the actions of sinful man (for which they would bear 100% responsibility) to bring about his plan and purpose. This private discussion between Jesus and Pilate only made Pilate more uncomfortable, and John records that from then on Pilate ‘tried to set Jesus free.’  The Jews however piled on the pressure: ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.’

It was decision time. Pilate had to jump one way or another. He brought Jesus out and prepared for a final judgement. John gives the precise location of the judgement ‘(he) sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement.’ It was noon. ‘Here is your king,’ announced Pilate. Isn’t that a remarkable statement? Pilate was clear that Jesus was indeed the king of Israel. Perhaps in his discussions with Jesus he had reached this conclusion. We are not told. However, as we shall see, Pilate was adamant that whatever happened next, the Jews would be reminded that Jesus was indeed their king! The response to Pilate’s statement was simply this; ‘Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!’ At this stage, Pilate has given up. John doesn’t tell us about how Pilate washed his hands of the decision, but it’s clear from John’s account that Pilate has had enough and will now let the Jews do whatever they wanted with Jesus. ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ The dreadful response was, ‘we have no king but Caesar.’  At this point, John records that Pilate handed him over to be crucified. The Jewish response that they had no king but Caesar is all the more astonishing given the Old Testament accounts in Daniel of four empires that would hold sway over Israel, ultimately falling to the coming Messiah. The fourth of the series of empires identifies very closely with the Roman Empire – one can only marvel that the religious leaders were so opposed to Jesus that they sided with the world empire of the age rather than the eternal kingdom of the Messiah.

Having abandoned his effort to save Jesus, Pilate handed him over to the chief priests to be crucified.

  1. The Crucifixion

John’s account is brief and to the point. The soldiers took charge, Jesus was taken to Golgotha and there he was crucified with two others, one on either side. John does give significant account of the sign prepared by Pilate; it read ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.’ Pilate had the sign written in three languages for good measure. He wanted everyone to know who he thought Jesus was – in spite of protests from the Pharisees. Pilate was cruel, heartless and cynical of that there is no doubt, but there is definitely an effort on his part to see a measure of justice done. One can only hope that at some stage he realised his ultimate mistake and took action to seek forgiveness.

John next relates a side story about Jesus’ clothes. The four soldiers divided his clothes (one item per person) but a single item remained: a seamless garment. Clothing costs very little in our era of mechanized production but clothing was expensive and valuable in these ancient times. The seamless garment was clearly of some value and rather than tear it, the soldiers drew lots for it. John notes that this took place as a literal fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. Psalm 22: 18, ‘They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.’

One can hardly imagine the distress, sorrow and confusion of Jesus’ family and friends. John relates that a group of women stood nearby. Jesus’ mother, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene. John was also amongst this group. I think this group contrasts greatly with Pilate, the Jews and the disciples too. They were just a group of powerless women and yet they were there, fearlessly demonstrating their love and support for Jesus. In spite of the military might and political power of Rome, in spite of the hold of the religious leaders over Jewish thinking they held firm. What an example for us!

Even in the midst of this traumatic experience Jesus was thinking of others and said simply to his mother and John, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to John, ‘Here is your mother.’ Presumably Joseph had already died. John did indeed take care of Mary in his home.

  1. Death and Burial

The time for the end had come. John records that Jesus now knew that ‘everything had now been finished.’ The rigours of crucifixion would have meant that Jesus would be dehydrated and would be thirsty. He was offered a sponge soaked in wine vinegar. The wine vinegar was a cheap wine, drunk by the masses and most likely belonged to the soldiers. Jesus drank what was offered, and probably did so to enable him to make his final statement: ‘it is finished.’ The Greek word he used was ‘tetelestai.’ This word was written over financial documents of the day to indicate ‘paid in full.’ The meaning is clear, God sent Jesus to the world to pay the ransom price for the sin of all mankind. (he…’gave himself as a ransom for all men.’ 1 Timothy 2:6). The price has been paid, the ransom has been met.

If we assume that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, the next day was the Sabbath and a special one being at the time of Passover. The Jewish leaders didn’t want the bodies hanging in the crosses on the Sabbath – how very tidy! They were happy to crucify the Messiah but wanted it all cleared up in time for Passover. Enough said. Apparently, death by crucifixion is a slow process and can last many days, but death could be hastened by breaking the legs of those being crucified. This would render the one being crucified incapable of breathing and death would quickly follow. The legs of the men on either side of Jesus were duly broken but Jesus was already dead. Perhaps to ensure he really had died a Roman soldier pierced the side of Jesus’ body releasing ‘blood and water.’ John notes that the prophecies of the Old Testament specifically predicted that ‘not one of his bones will be broken,’ (Psalm 34:20) and that ‘They will look on the one they have pierced,’ (Zechariah 12:10).

In the midst of this account, John makes an important statement of his purpose in recording these events: ‘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.’ What will you do with Jesus?

We close this account with the actions of two secret disciples. We met Nicodemus earlier in John’s gospel. He was the Pharisee who came to Jesus secretly at night. Joseph of Arimathea was also a secret disciple – he feared the Jewish leaders. They openly and boldly approached Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. They were prepared with myrrh and aloes (35 kg no less) and strips of linen. With this, they prepared Jesus’ body for burial according to the custom of the day. There was a garden near the place where Jesus was crucified and in it a new tomb. Jesus’ body was laid in this tomb.

John has written this account that we may believe. Pilate made his decision, the Jewish leaders made their choice, the women remained resolute followers and Joseph and Nicodemus declared their loyalty in public. What will you do with Jesus?