The death of Jesus – part 1
In the first three hours of Jesus on the cross he makes three statements showing his concern for others - those within his sight, the criminal and his mother.
In the first three hours of Jesus on the cross he makes three statements showing his concern for others - those within his sight, the criminal and his mother.
Hello, welcome to Series 13 and Episode 6. This is the first of two episodes. We are going to study 'the death of Jesus by crucifixion'. We are going to use Luke's account as the main basis for telling the story, Luke 23: 26 - 43.
Introduction and Recap
I hope you have been following the episodes through and have got a feel for the story that has been unfolding before us for quite some time from Series 11, through Series 12, and now into Series 13. It is amazing to think that all that material is just about a few days in Jesus' life. It is amazing to think that the materials only covered a five-day period, in which a huge amount of action has taken place, and a huge number of significant things have happened. The story is very remarkable - the way that it has unfolded. It seems incredible that we have gone from a position only five days earlier than this - the previous Sunday when Jesus was rapturously welcomed into Jerusalem by a huge crowd. It seems impossible to think that from that moment, to now, he is facing crucifixion - having been convicted as a blasphemer by the Jewish Sanhedrin, and having been sentenced to execution by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, which we saw in the last episode. It is an incredible transformation that is taking place and the reason for this is that within Jerusalem, the religious establishment is the one place where opposition to Jesus was absolutely steadfast. They were determined during this time, to find a way of arresting him, trying him, and getting him executed. They have been successful in that task. Despite the events of Palm Sunday, when Jesus came in triumph, and his overturning of the tables of the market traders in the Temple, and his ability to withstand their hostile questioning - despite all those things, they found a way of arresting him in a discreet way. The way they did that was by using the betrayer, Judas Iscariot, who halfway through the week - on the Wednesday - decided that he was going to change sides and go over to the authorities in order to gain financial reward. He was disillusioned with Jesus, in a number of different ways. Judas provided the opportunity for the authorities to move very quickly.
They moved with breakneck speed because late on Thursday night, after the Last Supper, when Jesus had gone to the Garden of Gethsemane - a quiet garden just outside the walls of Jerusalem in the Kidron Valley - to the east of the city. They went to that garden very late at night, perhaps somewhere around midnight, and arrested Jesus. Within a few hours, they tried him in a night-time trial in the High Priest's house. The Sanhedrin gathered during the night and then sent him to Pilate at the earliest possible moment, early on the Friday morning. They came to the Roman governor and asked him to carry out a sentence of execution which they were not allowed to do by law - the Romans prevented them. Having no authority, they were dependent on the Romans for their collaboration. We saw when Jesus was in front of Pilate, that Pilate was deeply reluctant. He didn't feel convinced about this action at all. He didn't see Jesus as a threat to the Romans in any way whatsoever. He saw this as a religious quarrel amongst the Jews. He had seen plenty of those before; he didn't want to have anything to do with it. But the sheer pressure of the crowd - that the authorities managed to assemble outside of the governor's Palace and place of adjudication of justice - the sheer pressure of this crowd chanting ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ asking Pilate to hand over to them one other criminal - Barabbas - and to have Jesus crucified. The sheer pressure of that eventually overwhelmed him and he made the fateful decision that he would hand Jesus over to his soldiers for execution.
That is the point that we have reached in the story as we come now to read the account in Luke 23. But before we read the account, let us think for a moment about what was happening in the city on this occasion. It was very early in the morning. People were still getting up. The city wasn't busy yet but Jerusalem, on this Friday, was going to be a very busy city because this was the central day of the Passover feast - the Friday of this particular week - a very big religious festival. Huge crowds were expected in the city and in the Temple compound and so it is important, from the authorities point of view, to get moving. The religious authorities wanted to get moving quickly, to get Jesus crucified before the crowds built up because crowds could be very volatile. The Romans also knew that crowds could be volatile. If rumours went round about Jesus being persecuted by the Sanhedrin, they knew that there could be popular crowd movements in favour of Jesus. The Sanhedrin wanted Pilate to move quickly. They went as early as they could to see him and they wanted him to make a decision really early, which he did after much pressure.
The method of crucifixion is another thing to comment on. Crucifixion was the chosen form of execution for the Romans. They used it as a means of imposing their authority, intimidating their opponents and dissuading people from rebelling against them. Wooden crosses were set up in public places, and on the side of the road. Those to be crucified were stripped naked and beaten before they were nailed, or tied, to the cross and hung up on the side of the roads - or in public places - in such a way that the body would bleed, and be stretched in a way that meant breathing was very hard. It was a slow, painful and tortuous way of dying that could take many, many hours. It could take more than a day to die. It was an utterly humiliating way to end your life - tremendously painful - and designed to intimidate any opponents of the Roman Empire. This was the way of death that would be chosen for Jesus, and Jesus knew in advance that his death was going to come by crucifixion. He would have seen crucified people and bodies on crosses in the country himself - he would have seen this with his own eyes.
The timing of the crucifixion, according to Mark 15: 25, was that it started at 9 o'clock in the morning, and Jesus died at 3 pm in the afternoon. John 19: 14 gives a timing that looks different but is probably based on the Roman calculation of time, and so we can follow the lead given by Mark, which is the framework that Luke is working in. Something is happening very early in the morning.
On the Way to the Cross
Let us read the text Luke 23: 26 - 43.
26As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. 28Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. 29For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30Then “‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!”’ 31For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” 32Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 35The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God's Messiah, the Chosen One.” 36The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the Jews. 39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don't you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” 43Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”Luke 23:26-43, NIV
According to John 19: 17, Jesus started out carrying his own cross but as we see here, at the beginning of Luke's account, in verse 26, fairly soon someone else was called in to help him carry the cross, from the Roman fortress in the city to the site of crucifixion, outside the city walls. That man was named Simon, who came from Cyrene, which is in North Africa. He was just a passerby. His two sons are named, in Mark's Gospel, which suggest that he might have become a believer, or they might have become believers, and were known to the Early Church, as a result of this incident. Simon has to carry the wooden cross because Jesus is struggling - probably because of the intense flogging that he has received.
A large crowd gathers and Luke notes a large number of women who were particularly distressed to see Jesus in this shocking state, having been flogged and humiliated and struggling to carry his cross, struggling along the road towards the site of crucifixion. Jesus, remarkably, speaks to them and says something very surprising, ‘Don't weep for me, weep for yourselves’ and speaks prophetically to these women that they, and other women who follow them will suffer greatly in Israel because of the impact of the decision that has been made by the Sanhedrin and the rulers - they are rejecting the Messiahship of Jesus. He predicts again some judgement is going to come upon the country. This has been a consistent theme: we saw it at the end of Matthew 23; we see it in Jesus' predictions about the future as recorded in Luke 21: 20 - 24 which speaks explicitly about Jerusalem being destroyed by a Gentile army, which turns out to be the Romans who did so, around the year 70 A.D. Jesus is pointing out to them that the issue is not primarily about his suffering but about their suffering as a nation. He knows that his suffering - terrible though it is - will be short lived and redemptive.
The crucifixion site is known as ‘the place of the skull’ - Golgotha - an Aramaic term used in the Greek language. Sometimes Christians use the term Calvary - the Latin word for skull is ‘calvario’, from which we get the English word Calvary, to describe the place of crucifixion, just outside the city gates. Why was it called the 'place of the skull'? Maybe simply because it was a place of execution, where skulls were to be found. Maybe because the site looked like a skull - a little hill that looked in the shape of a human skull. This idea has fascinated people over the years and there is, outside Jerusalem, just outside the modern walls of the old city of Jerusalem, a little mound which has a similarity to the shape of the skull and the rock formation in this mound, or little hill, and some people have interpreted this as a possible place for at the crucifixion of Jesus. We can't be sure about that, but the place was named Golgotha.
The Two Criminals
There are two criminals being executed, perhaps they were colleagues of Barabbas, who had been a criminal leading some kind of a rebellion, who was freed by Pontius Pilate because of the tradition that one prisoner should be freed at the festival time. Maybe they were conspirators with him. These are being executed, on his left and his right, and he will have significant conversations with them.
‘Father Forgive Them’
As Jesus is on the cross, as described here in Luke, in a three-hour period because Luke 26; 44, describes something different happening at noonday, 12 o'clock. If we are starting at 9 am. to 12 am. then these verses describe the first three hours. There are three statements made during this three-hour period that are recorded. Three statements that Jesus makes from the cross. The first one appears in verse 34, ‘Jesus said “Father forgive them for they do not know they are doing.”’ This is an incredible statement of compassion and identification with sinners and people who were bringing about the execution of Jesus. Jesus is looking at the people that he sees from the cross: he sees Roman soldiers; he sees ordinary citizens; he sees Jewish religious leaders; and he asks God to have mercy on them. Little do they know what a terrible thing that they have done - the Jews and the Romans alike.
Not only is Jesus suffering with the pain of crucifixion, he is also being mocked by the crowd, verses 35 - 36, by people - ordinary people; by the rulers - the Jewish rulers; by the Roman soldiers. There is an intensity of mocking that is going on, which frequently happens at crucifixion. One of the humiliations of crucifixion was being utterly powerless, as you were being mocked by people standing on the side of the road. Matthew 27: 39 - 40 give some details of this:
39Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!”Matthew 27:39-40, NIV
This idea that Jesus said that, was put in their minds by the Sanhedrin because it had been used as an accusation against Jesus in the trial in the High Priest's house, that we looked at in an earlier episode. It looks like the rulers are going around telling people what to say, and they're hurling these insults at Jesus.
There is a sign on the cross. Mostly, the Romans gave a sign to indicate the reason for crucifixion for all passers-by. John gives us the full, fullest account of the significance of this sign in John 19: 19 - 22:
19Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews. 20Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. 21The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.” 22Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”John 19:19-22, NIV
The claim, ‘the King of the Jews’ is, of course, a messianic claim - that is the significance of it. It would be understood by the Jews to be acquainted with the Messiah and would show Jesus to be a false messiah. Pilate wrote the sign in the three common languages of the country: Aramaic - the language that Jews spoke on the street; Greek - the language of the eastern Mediterranean which was widely spoken in Israel as well; and Latin - which was the Roman language of the bureaucracy, the military and official, political and legal documents. It was quite clear to everyone what the accusation was.
‘Today, You'll Be With Me in Paradise’
The two criminals talk to Jesus. One is angry and hostile but both knew about Jesus quite clearly. They have some background knowledge. This is not surprising because everybody in Jerusalem, at this point, knew about Jesus. His Triumphal Entry, the previous Sunday, was known by everybody. It was a dramatic public event - the biggest event that went on in the whole week. The reputation of Jesus as a miracle worker, a healer and a prophet, and perhaps even as a Messiah, was spreading really fast. People knew about Jesus. One of the criminals cursed Jesus, complaining that if he had all this power, why didn't he get them all down off the cross, why didn't he miraculously end this terrible suffering and release them. But the other criminal on the cross, showed humility, repentance and elements of a sincere faith in the statement that he made. ‘“We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve but this man has done nothing wrong.”’ He accepted that he had done things wrong and was being punished justly. He also believed Jesus to be innocent. He said, ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He sincerely believed that Jesus was the Messiah, who did have the authority of the Kingdom of God, who had begun to bring it in, and would bring it in in fullness in due course. I have mentioned this many times in our studies. This Jewish understanding of the messianic Kingdom. God coming and dwelling on earth, ruling the Jewish people through his Messiah and for his rule to spread out to the Gentile nations around. This was a characteristically Jewish idea, that Jesus appeared to encourage and to affirm with some of his teaching. He said, ‘Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.’ This brings about the second remarkable statement of Jesus from the cross. ‘Truly, I tell you, today you'll be with me in Paradise.’ This man experienced salvation at this moment in his life - the very last moments of his human life, where he was being executed as a criminal. He repented. He had faith, as far as he was able to he showed a wholehearted belief in Jesus. Remarkably, Jesus said that he was going to enter into salvation, is going to enter into paradise which is another word for the heavenly existence that Jesus was going to experience very shortly after death.
‘Here is Your Mother’
Then comes the remarkable third statement of Jesus on the cross in these first three hours this is recorded by John, John 19: 25 to 27,
25Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” 27and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.’John 19:25-27, NIV
‘The disciple whom Jesus loved’, we have identified in earlier episodes, as John himself - the author of John's Gospel. I have given some reasons for that in earlier episodes. He was one of the inner circle; Peter, James and John had a close affinity and friendship with Jesus. Here he has been given the responsibility of Mary, to look after her. Jesus was the eldest son. His stepfather, Joseph had almost certainly died, because there is no reference to him in the Gospels beyond the narratives of the nativity, and the early years of Jesus' childhood. Jesus had overall responsibility for Mary's welfare, in the traditions of Jewish society. He had no certainty as to what his brothers were going to do for her, given the turbulence of his death and the fact that he wouldn't be there among them any longer. He gives to John the responsibility of looking after Mary, who was a disciple of his and who went with him at certain times, and was with him on this last trip to Jerusalem, and would be present at the day of Pentecost. John took the responsibility of looking after Mary and Church tradition tells us that John fulfilled that role for many years.
As we conclude this episode, we remind ourselves that we're describing the first three hours, of the six hours, that Jesus spent on the cross. The focus of these three hours is the judgement of humanity, of people, of institutions, of authorities against Jesus. The Sanhedrin and the Roman governor have come together in a single decision, despite the reluctance of the governor to bring about execution. Jesus is suffering at the hands of humanity - and the authorities - in the city of Jerusalem. He is suffering the wrath of man. We see here spiritual blindness on every side: Pilate ignorant of Judaism, had no idea what was going on; the Jewish leaders refusing the obvious evidence of Jesus' Messiahship and his fulfilment of Scripture in his miraculous powers; the crowds far too easily influenced by the Jewish leaders, some of whom have changed their minds from what they thought even a few days earlier; and the soldiers - just doing their job without ever thinking seriously about the significance of somebody like Jesus. Spiritual blindness was everywhere and the national tragedy for the Jewish nation was unfolding. The significance of this terrible moment would reverberate in the Jewish nation for a long time to come and would lead to an act of judgement against them, within a generation of Jesus' death.
My final comment is to go back again to Jesus, and to point out, and underline the extraordinary, love and grace to those around him, that he demonstrated in this three-hour period, where all statements are focused on the needs of other people. First of all, the needs of the perpetrators for forgiveness, ‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they do, what they are doing’ A second statement focuses on the urgent need of the thief, the criminal on the cross, who pleads for Jesus' help. Jesus speaks to him and grants him salvation. He meets that need. The third statement is concerning the human and practical needs of his own mother. He makes direct provision for that by commissioning John - his friend and his disciple - to look after his mother in the years to come, when Jesus will no longer be on the earth. This is a truly moving and remarkable story. In part 2, we will see some other key dimensions of the significance of the death of Jesus coming into play, and we will get an even fuller picture of what Jesus' death really means. I hope you will join us for that episode.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- One of the criminals repented and gained salvation in the last minutes of his life. What do you think about 'deathbed' salvations?
- It is amazing that Jesus could look out for others when he was undergoing such immense suffering. How was it possible for him to show such compassion? Can it be true for us, too?
- Many people involved in the death of Jesus were spiritually blind. Who are those you know who are spiritually blind in your society? How can you reach them with the good news?