Christian Resources for New Believers
The Crucifixion of Jesus


The center of Christianity is the person of Jesus--not his teachings, or even his miracles--but rather his execution by crucifixion as a Roman criminal.  Almost half of the gospels is devoted to the week of his crucifixion, and the epistles explain and apply the meaning of Jesus' execution.

Though virtually everyone agrees that this event took place, not everyone agrees on its meaning. 

Greeks viewed the message of a crucified Messiah as "foolishness" (moros).  How could the execution of a GAS-CHAMBER victim be the answer to the world's problems?  Jews viewed it as a "scandal."  Because God would never allow his Anointed to die on a cross, they saw Jesus' crucifixion as proof that he was an impostor who got what he deserved.  For similar reasons, Muslims believe that Judas, not Jesus, died on the cross.  Many view his death as the tragic martyrdom of an otherwise good man/great prophet.

What does the crucifixion of Jesus mean to you?  As a child, I understood only that it was supposed to evoke feelings of reverence.  But I only faked those feelings because I didn't understand what it meant.  Your appreciation of the crucifixion of Jesus is related to your understanding of its significance and your response to this understanding.

We will study the meaning of Jesus's crucifixion primarily by studying what Jesus said while he was being crucified.  The gospel authors record seven statements that he made from the cross; we will study four of them.  These statements provide "windows" through which we may understand the meaning of his death, and how to respond to it.

What does it mean?

Luke 23:34 - It is motivated by Jesus' concern that we receive God's forgiveness.

Read vs 32,33.  One of the noteworthy things about the gospel authors is the reserve which they describe Jesus' crucifixion.  Luke is a good example here: " . . . there they crucified him."  This is partially because they could take for granted that their audiences knew what crucifixion was like.  But it is important for us to get a basic grasp of what this phrase means.

Seneca, a Roman contemporary of Jesus, provides a partial description of crucifixion as he states by rhetorical question that no one would ever voluntarily endure it: "Can any man be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all?  Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long, drawn-out agony?"[1]

The victim was first scourged.  The whip was made of leather thongs with bits of metal and splintered bone.  After tying the victim's hands to a pole, two lictors whipped the victim's back, buttocks, and legs.  Scourging lacerated skin and muscle tissue, producing quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh.  The victim was then made to carry the cross-beam to the execution cite outside the city (communicating execution from society).  After being publicly humiliated by being stripped naked, he was then held down by soldiers while another soldier hammered 5-7 inch spikes through the hands and wrists.  The spikes were placed strategically between bones so they could support the victim's body weight for hours and even days.  Usually a peg or rudimentary seat was provided to take some of the victim's body weight and prevent it from being torn loose.  Then the cross was hoisted up and slammed into place in a pre-dug hole with such force that it tore the victim's ligaments and seared their nerves with burning agony.  The soldiers then nailed the victim's overlapped feet into the upright.

Roman historians tell us that victims usually filled the air with curses at this point, cursing the soldiers, the onlookers, the gods.  But, as the other two victims presumably did this, notice what Jesus cries out (read vs 34: "but . . . ").  Amazingly, his desire was not for retaliation for what was being done to him, but rather for God's forgiveness of the ones doing it to him!!  This is the first glimpse of the spiritual significance of his crucifixion--it is connected to Jesus' concern for our forgiveness.

" . . . for they do not know what they are doing."  This statement applies first of all to Jesus' accusers.  They are culpable for sentencing him unjustly (therefore they need forgiveness), but they are so blinded by hatred that do not realize the enormity of their crime.  Jesus holds them guilty for their actions, but his compassion prompts him to ask God for his mercy on them.
One of the symptoms of our lostness is that, because of our deliberate ignorance of what God has shown us, we wind up doing and saying things against God without realizing it, even when we think we are serving him.  But Jesus has compassion for us.

But how can we be forgiven?  This prayer, so different from the one mandated by the Jews, provides us with a hint.

Jewish capital criminals were required to utter this prayer before their execution: "May my death expiate (pay for) all of my sins."  The most they could hope for was that somehow their execution could pay the penalty of their sins before God.  The Bible, however, teaches that after our deaths we must face the judgment of God.

Jesus's prayer is a striking contrast to the mandated prayer.  Because he doesn't have any sins that need forgiven, he was free to pray for their forgiveness himself.  This is the first indication that his death was substitutionary.  This is made even more clear by the second statement we will look at . . . 

Mark 15:34 - It is God's predicted substitutionary payment for our sins.

This is the center-piece in order and importance.  It is the basis upon which Jesus could pray Lk 23:34.  Read vs 33-36.  The soldiers evidently thought he was crying out to Elijah to rescue him; but he was crying out to God who had forsaken him!

This is a stumbling-block to some.  Embarrassed by the idea that God would forsake anybody, least of all Jesus, they see this as the effects of delirium.  But the reason Jesus cried this was two-fold: to notify his hearers that he was indeed being rejected by his Father at that moment, and that that rejection was according to the plan and purpose of God.  There is a marvelous fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and ritual in this passage.

Jesus is notifying us that his death is the fulfillment of Old Testament predictive prophecy.  This statement is a direct quote from Ps. 22.  It is possible that he quoted the entire psalm.[2]  In any event, his Jewish hearers would certainly have recognized its source and been familiar with the rest of this psalm.  (Read most relevant Ps. 22:14-18)

This amazingly detailed description of crucifixion was uttered by David even though he did not die this way, and crucifixion wasn't devised for another several centuries!! 

God inspired David to describe the "view from the cross" so that we might know that Jesus's crucifixion and his rejection of Jesus in this way was according to his will and purpose for Jesus.

Mark is also notifying us that Jesus' death is the fulfillment of Passover.  Jesus' death occurred during the afternoon of Passover, during the very time (early afternoon) that Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple.

Passover was one of a whole body of rituals prescribed in the Old Testament that centered on the sacrifice of an innocent victim as a substitute for the one offering it.  This is the way that God said he would "pass over" the judgment of our sins and accept us as we are.

Of course, the animal sacrifices never paid for human sin.  This is why the Old Testament predicted that God would one day send a blameless Person to do this.  800 years earlier, Isaiah predicted the Messiah's substitutionary death (read Isa. 53:5,6).

What God had them act out symbolically for the previous 1400 years, he was now fulfilling in the Person of Jesus!!  This is what John the Baptist foretold (Jn 1:29); this is the purpose for which Jesus said he came (Mk 10:45).  At this moment, God the Father identified the sins of all mankind on Jesus so that "he who knew no sin became sin on our behalf" (2 Cor. 5:21) and then God the Father rejected him and poured out his infinite wrath on his own Son.  This was the "cup" about which Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane.

Theologians call this substitutionary atonement, and it is the key theological concept of the Bible.  It is necessary because of the character of God himself.  God is not an indulgent, half-senile grandfather; he is holy and righteous and implacably insistent that all violations of his character must be paid for with death.  Therefore, there can be no forgiveness without payment.  But because God is also loving, he is willing to make that payment for us himself through the death of his innocent Son. 

Seneca was wrong--there is someone who is willing to go to the cross.  Jesus voluntarily went to the cross for us, so that we may be delivered from God's judgment.

This is why Paul calls Jesus' crucifixion "the wisdom of God and the power of God."  Through the cross, God devised a way to accept sinful people without compromising his sinless character (Rom. 3:25,26).

John 19:30 - It is a complete payment for all of our sins.

Read vs 28-30.  This is the "loud cry" mentioned by the other gospel authors, and it provides more confirmation of the meaning of the cross.

Notice that Jesus does not mumble "I am finished!" - rather he shouts "It is finished!"  This is not a whimper of defeat - it is a proclamation of victory!  

What was finished?  It is probable that Jesus was bi-lingual (Aramaic and Greek).  It is also probable that he spoke all of these statements but the fourth in Greek (soldiers understood him; Mark says he spoke Mk. 15:34 in Aramaic).  If this is the case, what he uttered was tetelestai: "paid in full!"

This was the word that was written as the first word on receipts acknowledging payment in the Roman world.[3]  In other words, Jesus is announcing that our sin debt with God has been paid in full!

This is certainly how Paul understood this statement--read Col. 2:13,14.  The "certificate of debt" was the document specifying crimes against society.  Jesus had such a certificate nailed to his cross (Matt. 27:37), even though he was innocent.  Paul says God took our spiritual "certificates of debt"--God's record of our sins against him--and "nailed it to the cross."  Because Jesus paid our debt, God has cancelled ours out, taken it away.  Through Jesus' death, God has completely dealt with the only barrier that ever separated him from us.

The issue then, is not how much we have sinned, but rather we are willing to respond to God's solution for our sins.  Now let's look at another incident that shows us how to respond . . . 

How should we respond to it?

Read Lk. 23:39-43.  What an amazing statement!  Jesus promises that he will be in the presence of God, and that this man will also be there because of the way he has responded.  What was it about this man's response that ensures him eternal life?? 

It certainly was not the good life he had led!  He was a thief (Matt. 27:38) who had probably spent his whole life ripping people off.  And, shortly before this moment, he had mocked Jesus to his face (Matt. 27:44; Mk. 15:32).  And there is no time for him to get baptized, or do anything to earn God's favor.

It is as though God deliberately picked as the first beneficiary of Jesus's death the least deserving person.  It would be like Jesus saying this to Jeffrey Dahmer just before he was electrocuted (if he had not been murdered).  Does this offend you?  Then you are still placing your confidence in your own goodness to earn God's acceptance.

Rather, it was on the basis of a new attitude.  In vs 40-42, this man expresses the essence of what the Bible calls saving faith in Jesus:

Instead of blame-shifting/rationalizing/minimizing, he accepts full responsibility for his sins and agrees that he deserves God's judgment (vs 41).

Instead of trusting his works (past or future), he casts himself on the mercy of Jesus to make him acceptable to God (vs 42).

Saving faith involves understanding why Jesus was crucified--but it involves more than this.  It also involves personally entrusting yourself to his death to pay for your sins against God (REMBRANDT’S SELF-POTRAIT AT THE CROSS).  The moment you do this, Jesus' promise to this man becomes true for you also.

[1]Cited in Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), pp. 30,31.

[2]Ethelbert Stauffer, Jesus and His Story (New York: A. E. Knopf, 1974), pp. 136,140,141

[3]Moulton and Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, p. 630.  "The word translated `It is finished' (tetelestai) was used in Greek commercial life.  The term signifed the completion of a transaction by the full payment of a price or the discharge of a debt by a completed payment." J. Dwight Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), p. 487.