Today we are concluding our series, 24 Hours that Changed the World. Three weeks ago we began this journey together as we explored the setting and the important action of Jesus being the bridge that transformed the events of the Jewish Passover into what we observe as Communion. Then we looked at the feelings Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane as He awaited to be arrested and how those feelings of agony do not have to equal defeat. Last week we spent some time gaining a deeper understanding of the condemnation that Jesus experienced and what we can learn from Christ's response. Today we are going to explore the actual torture and crucifixion of Christ and see how God's loved is revealed within it.
The Passion of the Christ
Many movies have been made about the life and death of Jesus. Six years ago, Mel Gibson released his version of the events unfolding in the last hours of Jesus’ life in the movie, The Passion of the Christ. I don’t know how many of you may have seen it in the theaters or on DVD since then. Debbie and I actually saw it twice in the theater – once in a screening for pastors and their spouses and then we actually took the youth group from our church in Fort Myers to see it together. Since then we’ve watched it about once a year at home. In general I find the movie to be powerful, overwhelming, disturbing in parts, emotionally draining, but riveting and impossible not to watch. Last year my parents had a similar experience watching the Passion Play being put on in Wauchula. And I was talking with my Dad afterwards and he said that the whole program was so intense at some points that he was uncomfortable and just wanted to yell out for everyone to stop please – because he said he didn’t like to think of Jesus hurting in that way – and yet he knew that was only a small fraction of what our Savior went thru for each and every one of us.
That was one of our most powerful experiences in the city of Jerusalem, when Debbie and I visited the two sites where scholars presume that Jesus was crucified. The more traditional site is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a very ornate and beautiful Orthodox church, which has been built on top of an old stone quarry that would have been outside the city in Jesus’ day. Inside this magnificent church are the last four stops of the Via Dolorosa, marking where Jesus would have been nailed to the cross, where the cross would have stood, where Jesus’ body would have been laid after being taken off the cross and wrapped and the tomb where Jesus would have been laid. Historically this is thought to be the more accurate of the two places for Jesus’ crucifixion, however it’s hard to picture in your mind when you are there because everything is covered up by the ornate structure of the church. The other site presumed for Jesus’ crucifixion is just outside the space called the Garden Tomb. Right on the edge of this garden area is a cliff outcropping that looks like a skull – you can see eye sockets and a nose. And since Golgatha and Calvary were Aramaic and Latin words for skull, you can understand why so many people identify with this site. Besides, it’s out in the open still and you can just much more easily imagine the scene from Scripture taking place right there.
The Crucifixion of the Messiah
Our Scripture lesson this morning from the Gospel of Mark picks up the story of Jesus’ last hours after Pontius Pilate’s verdict. Jesus is turned over to the Roman soldiers for a beating and humiliation. He was first flogged. Historical research of ancient Rome tells us that it wouldn’t have been just a simple whip used in Jesus’ beating – more than likely it would have been something called a “cat-o-nine-tails” with several strands of leather, each with some piece of glass or nails tied into the ends. Typically the Romans used 2-4 soldiers for these beatings so that they could rotate in and out as they got tired. Sometimes the beatings were so brutal that the bones would be exposed on a person’s back by the time the soldiers were done. The intent was to inflict as much pain as possible without actually killing the person. Again, Scripture indicates no response from Jesus throughout his beating. No doubt his lack of response infuriated the Roman soldiers even more which probably explains their next action.
They called together a whole company of soldiers, we’re talking several hundred here, who gathered around Jesus to humiliate him. They made a crown of thorns and put it onto his head, digging into his scalp. They put on a purple robe symbolizing royalty and spit on him while they mocked him saying “Hail king of the Jews.” They were trying to break him down – trying to get some kind of reaction and response and still they got nothing in return except Jesus’ silence. Finally they took him out to crucify him.
The Romans made those being crucified carry their own cross through the city so that everyone could see, because one of the purposes of crucifixion was to strike fear into people so that they wouldn’t commit crimes as well. The vertical beam of the cross was usually left in place and it was the horizontal beam that would be carried, but that alone could weigh 100 pounds. It’s no wonder that after being beaten by the temple guards and then by the Roman soldiers that Jesus couldn’t shoulder the weight of his cross and Scripture records that Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service to help Jesus after He fell.
Once they arrived at the site of the crucifixion, Jesus would have been nailed to the crossbeam and then the beam raised up and put in place. He would have also had his feet nailed to the vertical piece of the cross. But it wasn’t the nails that killed people. You see, the goal of crucifixion was to keep people in agony for as long as possible before dying – some hung on the cross for two days before death. What you died from was asphyxiation – because while you’re hanging you need to push up to exhale a breath. And every time you push up you are digging at those wounds in your hands and feet. So the longer you hung, the more exhausted you became and the harder it was to pull yourself up and so the breathing becomes more and more shallow until you stop breathing all together. Sometime in order to speed up death, the Romans would break people’s legs because then it was harder for them to pull up and exhale and they would die faster. They didn’t have to break Jesus’ legs though because He only hung on the cross like that for 6 hours before He died. Only six hours – but all for you and me.
The insults continued even as He hung on the cross. They came from the religious leaders standing on the ground beneath him mocking him still, yelling at him to save himself. They came from one of the two thieves being crucified next to him. And yet in the midst of all that pain and agony there was faith. A little band of believers, women and Jesus’ disciple John, stood near the cross in support of Him. One of the two thieves on the cross next to Him professed faith and was promised by Jesus that he would join him in Paradise. And after Jesus had breathed His last breath, one of the Roman centurions who had participated in his death proclaimed that “surely this was the Son of God!”
The Irony of the Cross – Pain vs. Love
The cross was intended by the Romans as an emblem of suffering, shame and humiliation. According to the writings of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, the cross was a often problem for many early believers – they couldn’t get past the suffering and shame and it was a real a stumbling block for many. But, somewhere along the way, the cross has become a symbol uniting followers of Jesus Christ. In the early days of the Christian church, the symbol for believers was the ichthus, the fish symbol; but somehow the cross has become almost exclusively identified as the symbol of Christian faith. You find it on church steeples. You find it worn as a necklace. You find people carrying it around in their pocket. You find it as a bumper sticker on cars. You will find the cross in every nation and every race throughout the world as a symbol of the Christian faith.
So how can we lift up and celebrate something that once only represented suffering and shame? Because as Christians we believe that Jesus’ crucifixion is the central act of salvation – that through Jesus’ death on the cross, God is working to redeem all of humankind throughout history. In Adam, one man’s disobedience brought sin into everyone’s life, but through Jesus, one man’s sacrifice of love brought reconciliation and hope into everyone’s life. We wear the cross because we follow a crucified Messiah and that we were on his mind while He was hanging on the cross.
I recently read a story called “Green Pastures.” It was actually a play that was performed on Broadway. In the final scene, God and the angel Gabriel are together in a room up in heaven. Gabriel looks out of the window of heaven and says, "Look, Lord, they're beating Jesus with that whip! Is the time come for me to blow the horn?" And God says, "No, Gabriel, not yet!" Again Gabriel looks out the window of heaven and says, "Lord, they're making him carry that cross up the hill by himself! Are you ready for me to blow the horn?" And God says, "No, Gabriel, not yet!" "Lord," Gabriel says with excitement in his voice, "they're nailing him to that cross! Surely you want me to blow the horn now?" And God says, "No, Gabriel, not yet!" Gabriel shakes his head and he says, "Lord, that's a terrible burden for one person. Why are you letting them do it to him? Why?" And then, God, who throughout the entire play has had his back to the audience turns and looks directly at every person in the audience and says, "'Because I love them! Because I love them.”
And this is the great paradox and irony of the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary was the most terrible thing that could happen to someone – physically and emotionally and even spiritually. And yet, it is through the cross of Calvary that we come to know what God is like: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16). It is through the cross of Calvary that God is fully revealed, because it is through the cross of Calvary that we come to know of God's love.
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the cross tells me so. Have you discovered God's love in your life? You can, by looking at the cross of Calvary!