Guest essay by Wes Neal
The Crucifixion of Jesus
Toward the end of Jesus’ mission, he spoke these words to his followers, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Journey with Jesus, now, in his last hours to watch him demonstrate his “greater love” for you, and for the entire world.
After Jesus was taken captive in the Garden of Gethsemane, a private garden across the narrow valley from Jerusalem, he endured six short trials, all of them a mockery of justice. Finally, the Jewish religious leaders, in wanting Jesus dead, decided to take Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor.
Had the Jewish leaders executed Jesus, themselves, it would have been death by stoning. That was the Jewish method. However, stoning would have been too fast of a death for what the religious leaders had in mind for the man who had called them out for their self-absorbed hypocrisy. They opted for the Roman method of execution – by crucifixion. That would satisfy their thirst for a slow and painful death.
Although the religious leaders took Jesus to Pilate, the governor didn’t find any wrong in Jesus. He just wanted to give Jesus a relatively light slap on the wrist and let him go. Pilate’s decision forced the religious leaders to use a tactic that would persuade the governor to do their bidding.
They convinced Pilate that Jesus had claimed to be a Jewish king. Of course, the title, ’king,’ flashed a red light of alarm in Pilate‘s mind. He knew any rival king could energize the already hostile Jewish people to openly rebel against the Romans. Because Pilate served the Romans in that Jewish region, he knew any outbreak would bring the wrath of Rome down on him. Consequently, he would lose his cushy position – and, most likely, his life.
To his credit, Pilate still didn’t want to kill Jesus. However, to appease the Jewish religious leaders, Pilate commanded his soldiers to scourge him. Then, if the messy, blood-splattering scourge didn’t satisfy the Jews, Pilate had one last card to play to save Jesus from crucifixion.
The soldiers led Jesus to an outer courtyard, lifted him onto a raised platform, then, with rawhide, tied his hands to the top of a wood post set into the ground through the platform. A soldier climbed up on the platform, gripping the dreaded scourge. Just the sight of its nine leather straps, and pieces of broken bone and metal attached to the ends, would be enough to terrify anyone.
The soldier standing behind Jesus draped the scourge over his own shoulder. Then, with an overhead throwing motion, he sent the nine straps, with their sharp tips, to their mark – the base of Jesus‘ neck. With perfect timing, the soldier snapped his wrist and the pieces of jagged bones and metal dug into Jesus’ flesh. Then, he pulled the scourge down Jesus’ back, ripping the skin and flesh.
That was only the first of many blows, each shredding Jesus’ skin and splattering his blood in all directions. Finally, as Jesus hung limp from the stake another soldier climbed onto the platform, cut the rawhide, releasing Jesus to slump into a puddle of his own blood. Other soldiers then climbed onto the platform, lifted Jesus to his feet, lowered him from the platform and dragged him to a room off the courtyard.
In that room, while one soldier held Jesus up, another poked his body with a pole and slugged him in the face. After the soldiers had their sadistic sport with Jesus, a couple of them helped him back to Pilate.
The Roman governor thought Jesus’ beaten and scourged body would satisfy the religious authorities as he played his trump card to spare Jesus’ life. Each year at the Passover, the Roman custom was to release a Jewish prisoner. That year, Pilate left it up to the people who had gathered in his courtyard to decide between Jesus and Barabbas, a known ruthless killer.
To Pilate’s surprise, the religious leaders used their clout to persuade the people to call for the release of Barabbas.
“But, what should I do with this man?” Pilate asked them, pointing to Jesus.
“Crucify him,” they shouted.
Pilate reluctantly commanded a detachment of Roman soldiers to take Jesus away to be crucified. Now, it was customary for a criminal to carry the cross on his way to the site of his crucifixion. However, Jesus was weakened from having lost so much blood during the scourging that he needed help to drag his cross through the narrow streets of Jerusalem.
Finally, on a hillside just outside Jerusalem, one soldier positioned Jesus’ cross to lay flat on the ground, between the crosses of two other victims. A second soldier peeled Jesus’ blood-soaked robe off him, exposing his still bleeding and shredded back. Then, he threw Jesus down on the cross, his raw back rubbing against the splintery beam. Another soldier stretched out Jesus’ arms, and drove a spike between the carpal bones of each wrist. The soldier then pounded a spike through both of Jesus’ feet, securing them to the vertical beam of the cross.
With Jesus writhing in agony, a couple of soldiers gripped the top of the cross and lifted it to their chests. They maneuvered themselves under the end of the cross, with Jesus staked to it, and pushed it toward the deep hole. With the bottom of the cross on the brink of the hole, the soldiers thrust the cross upward. As it reached the vertical position, the cross slammed down into the hole, hitting the bottom with a thud. At the cross’ abrupt stop, Jesus’ torso plunged downward, painfully yanking his shoulders out of their sockets.
With two dislocated shoulders, Jesus cried out in pain and gasped for air. He couldn’t raise his chest by pulling himself up. So, to straighten his torso to a position where he could draw air into his lungs, he pushed hard against the spike in his feet, struggling to straighten his legs.
However, with the flats of his feet against the cross, he couldn’t fully straighten his legs. After a short gulp of air, he sagged, pulling against his disjointed shoulders. For the next three hours, Jesus continued that painful up and down movement. Each time up and each time down his raw back scraped against the rough vertical beam, enflaming nerves throughout his entire body.
At twelve noon, the sun quit shining in that small area of the world. For the next three hours, darkness filled the land. Not an eclipse of the sun since eclipses don’t last that long. Something unexplainable was happening.
Suddenly, Jesus’ words shattered the silence. “Why have you forsaken me?” he cried out in a weakened and raspy voice. Every head jerked up. All of his life, Jesus had sensed his Father’s presence.
But, not then.
He felt empty and alone.
At three in the afternoon, Jesus’ shallow breathing was sporadic. No more push in his legs. Jesus, the man of life, was suffocating, gagging on the fluids of his own congestion. His pain had become a dull numbness.
In the mystery of darkness, a soldier dipped a sponge into vinegar and raised it to Jesus’ lips. With one last gasp, he uttered, “It is finished!” And, Jesus’ bearded and bloodied chin dropped to his chest.
The Resurrection of Jesus
Shortly after Jesus died, a group of Jews preparing the area for the Passover went to Pilate and requested that Jesus’ body be removed from the cross.
They were concerned that visitors coming to Jerusalem for the Passover could get angry and, possibly, riot if they saw the body of such a well-known and respected teacher hanging on a cross.
However, there was a problem with their request. A person sentenced to die by crucifixion could not be removed from the cross before he died.
Fortunately, Pilate had a solution. Whenever a victim lingered on the cross too long, to accelerate the death process, soldiers would break the shin bones with a club.
Because the victim would not be able to push up with his legs to draw in air, he would suffocate to death. Thus, he would still die by crucifixion. With that in mind, Pilate dispatched a team of soldiers to break Jesus’ legs.
When the soldiers arrived at the site, one soldier smashed the shin bones of a criminal on one side of Jesus, then the legs of a criminal on the other side.
The soldier raised his club to break Jesus’ legs, but he stopped. Like an invisible hand held back his club. The perplexed soldier studied Jesus for a moment. Then he lowered his club and declared him already dead.
No need to break his legs.
However, one of the soldiers, to make sure Jesus was really dead, thrust his spear into Jesus’ side on an upward trajectory to the heart. When the soldier pulled out the spear, a mixture of water and blood flowed through the gaping wound.
Shortly afterward, a wealthy man named Joseph went to Pilate, He also had a request. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin – the powerful Jewish ruling body.
He asked Pilate for permission to give Jesus a descent burial. Pilate granted his request.
Joseph and his friend, Nicodemus, a fellow member of the Sanhedrin, went to the crucifixion site and pried loose the spikes in Jesus’ limbs. Together, the two men lowered Jesus’ lifeless, mutilated body, and carried it to Joseph’s own nearby burial tomb.
Jewish people, to prepare their dead for burial, wrapped the body in a linen cloth. Between the layers of linen, they spread a solution of myrrh and aloes.
These spices did two things: First, they solidified the linen wrappings and turned them into an encasement. Second, they gave off a fragrance that helped neutralize the stench of the decaying body.
Late that same afternoon, a group of women stood across the dirt pathway in front of the open cave. They were paying their respect to Jesus while watching Joseph and Nicodemus wrap his body as it lay on a stone bench in the tomb.
Then, the two men pried out a stake that held back the two-thousand pound, wheel-shaped boulder. It rolled into a trench in front of the tomb, leaned against the entrance, and closed it off.
With the boulder in place, the two men rushed off to ready themselves for the Passover celebration. The women, still grieving, also went their way.
Later, a group of influential chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate with still another request. They reasoned that if the governor did not put a guard by the tomb, Jesus’ disciples could possibly steal his body. Then, they could claim he had risen.
That, of course, would cause an uproar and give credibility to Jesus’ claim that he and his Father were one (John 10:30).
Pilate granted their request.
He dispatched to the tomb the elite Roman guard, a detachment of sixteen soldiers. Their sole responsibility was to make sure no one would steal the body.
To guarantee that wouldn’t happen, Pilate ordered the guard to attach the Roman seal to the tomb.
At the site, a soldier stretched a leather cord around the boulder, and fastened each end to the cliff with a clay-like substance. The head soldier, then affixed the official Roman seal to the substance at each attachment.
Any person caught tampering with that seal would catch the full wrath of the Roman law – death by execution. Of course, to avoid being falsely accused, no one would even dare to be in the same area if they knew the Roman seal was present.
Once a soldier affixed the seal, the elite guard stood in a semi-circle around the tomb‘s entrance. Each man had been trained to protect the small portion of ground directly in front of him.
They stood guard in four, six-hour shifts. And, as extra incentive to stay awake, all the guards would be executed if any of them were caught asleep while on duty.
The stage was set.
The massive, two-thousand pound boulder leaned against the cave opening. The fearless detachment of Roman soldiers stood guard, with the Roman seal attached.
Now, let’s pick up the action, according to the Bible, of what happened early in the morning, on the third day following Jesus’ crucifixion.
Suddenly, before dawn, the earth started to shake. Out of nowhere, a figure in white, with his bare hands, rolled the mammoth boulder out of the trench, away from the tomb entrance.
The tough, battle-tested Roman guards were so shaken by what they saw, they fainted to the ground.
After the guards regained consciousness and realized the tomb was empty, they took off running to Jerusalem, heading straight to the religious leaders. After they reported what happened, the chief priests called an emergency counsel. Consequently, they bribed the guards to say that, while they slept, Jesus’ disciples stole his body.
Wait a minute, you might say. “How could the soldiers spread such a story?” After all, sleeping on duty would mean execution. That’s why the soldiers reported to the religious leaders, and not to their leaders. The soldiers knew the chief priests had clout with Pilate. And, it paid off.
The religious leaders promised to keep the governor from executing the guard in exchange for the soldiers’ commitment to spread the lie and blame the disciples. The soldiers had no choice but to go along with the hoax.
Yet, the lie does have a major flaw, doesn’t it? After all, how would the soldiers know who took Jesus’ body if, in fact, they were asleep?
Oh well…that same morning, before dawn, Mary, one of Jesus’ followers, approached the empty tomb. She noticed the boulder had been removed. So, with alarm, she ran back to the city to tell Peter and John that someone had taken Jesus’ body. The two disciples knew they hadn’t done it. They also were alarmed – and, curious.
Peter and John raced to the tomb, with Mary tagging along, a distant third. John got there first, stooped over, and peered inside. Then Peter charged right by him into the tomb, and John followed.
In the tomb, the two men studied the scene. Then, Peter and John marveled, and left the tomb with a new hope.
Mary also stooped down to look inside. Her eyes widened when she saw two angels – messengers from God. They had not been there a few seconds earlier.
“Why are you crying?” one of the angels asked.
“Because I don’t know where they have taken the body,” Mary replied.
Suddenly, she heard footsteps approaching, and she whipped around. Through tear-filled eyes, she mistook the person to be the gardener.
“Where did you lay the body?” she asked.
The man didn’t answer. He simply spoke her name: “Mary.”
Right away, she recognized his familiar voice. She wiped away her tears, and saw more clearly who it was.
“It’s you.” she cried out.
Jesus spoke more words that confirmed to Mary it was, indeed, him. He told her to pass the word to his followers that he was very much alive. Just as he had often promised he would be.
With her heart pounding, and her feet going as fast as they could, Mary raced into Jerusalem to share the news. Hurriedly, she climbed the outside staircase to the guest room. A disciple opened the door, and she burst through, shouting, “I have seen the Lord!”
In the days to follow, Jesus made several appearances. On one occasion, he even showed himself to over five hundred people. With the unexpected news of his resurrection, new life flowed into the once fearful band of followers. No longer would they hide. No longer would they cower behind locked doors in silence. Because of their amazing story, three thousand people turned to Jesus in one day, and many kept being added daily.
Now, because the resurrection of Jesus is so life-changing, enemies of God have tried to disprove it over the years. The best they have come up with are four theories. Each was crafted to be a knockout blow to the claim that Jesus had resurrected.
Weighing the Evidence
Here, you will become a jury of one to determine if there is enough evidence to prove Jesus did resurrect from the tomb.
Once you take a seat in the jury box, “listen” to each of the four theories that have been raised over the yeas to discredit the resurrection. Afterward, weigh the evidence and declare Jesus either:
Resurrected or Not Resurrected.
The Wrong Tomb Argument
Simply put, this theory says the women mistakenly went to the wrong tomb.
“Sure,” the critics say, “it was empty because there never was a body in it.” Then, they claim, blinded followers of Jesus mistakenly spread the word he had risen from the dead.
The Roman seal would still be hanging on the tomb. So, find the seal and you’ve found the right tomb. It would have been easy to verify that it was the right tomb. No other tomb was found with the seal attached.
The Swoon Argument
According to this argument, Jesus never died on the cross. His intense pain caused him to faint, or to swoon.
This theory puts forth the idea that Joseph, who took Jesus off the cross, might have been in cahoots with Jesus and his followers to execute an elaborate resurrection hoax.
In the coolness of the cave, Jesus revived. He then somehow managed to get out of the tomb with a two thousand pound boulder sealing off its entrance, sneak past the Roman guards, and finally die, probably falling into a cavern where no one could find his body.
No major argument against the resurrection disputes the fact Jesus‘ body had been in the tomb. Almost everyone agrees on that point. So, how do we know Jesus was already dead before he even got to the tomb? It has to do with the blood and water that came out of the wound when the soldier speared Jesus.
To appreciate the damage the spear caused, we have to realize that the bottom of Jesus’ feet were approximately 24 to 30 inches off the ground. That would put his waist about eye-level to the soldier who drove his spear into Jesus’ side.
Now, Roman soldiers normally would thrust their spears from a waist position. That way, they could fend off attacks from adversaries. So, from his own waist, the soldier shoved his spear into Jesus’ side, angling it upward toward Jesus’ heart. That was his target.
When the soldier withdrew his spear, blood gushed out, along with a water substance. The question is: what was that water substance?
A protective sac filled with a clear, water-like fluid surrounds the heart. If the sac is ruptured, or drained, that person cannot live much longer. One medical doctor told me, “If Jesus were not dead when the spear came out, he would have died within a few minutes.”
Other medical authorities take a different route to get to that same conclusion. They say the water-like fluid could also have been water separated from blood plasma. That separation would be another sure sign of death.
Now, whether the water-like fluid was from the protective sac around Jesus’ heart, or it was a separation of blood, it tells us one thing: Jesus died on the cross.
However, the Swoon Theory does not just contradict medical science. It also flies in the face of logic. The theory says that, in the coolness of the tomb, Jesus revived, and got out of the tomb. Now, think about that. With two dislocated shoulders, Jesus still managed to get to his feet and struggle his way over to the huge boulder sealing off the entrance of the tomb.
Then, in his weakened physical condition – again with two dislocated shoulders the skin ripped off his back, a gaping spear wound in his side, and with a great loss of blood – he somehow managed to move the boulder, weighing a minimum of thousand pounds. Not only did he budge the boulder, he moved it up and out of its trench, away from the opening. All this, mind you, without causing any of the guards to notice.
Once out of the tomb, Jesus snuck past the elite guard. Finally, according to this theory, due to his great loss of blood, Jesus most likely stumbled into a deep cavern and died. Of course, falling into a cavern would be one way to account for the fact nobody ever found his body.
However, even though this theory explains how no one has ever found Jesus’ body, it still doesn’t pass the test of logic. If the blood and water had not already killed the Swoon Theory, logic certainly does.
The Hallucination Argument
This theory claims the disciples, because they so eagerly wanted Jesus to be resurrected from the dead, hallucinated, or envisioned, they saw and heard him, all of them having the same hallucination at the same time.
In other words, their imaginations played a trick on them.
Just as the Swoon Theory flew in the face of logic, so does the Hallucination Theory. Psychologists tell us no two people can have the exact same hallucination at the same time. It’s impossible. No two people can see the same image, hear the same words, at the same time. One human mind doesn’t work exactly the same as another. Yet, the biblical record tells us that over five hundred people saw and heard the resurrected Jesus…all at the same time. The Hallucination Theory stumbles and falls before it even gets out of the blocks.
The Stolen Body Argument
To discredit the resurrection of Jesus, skeptics say someone stole his body, then got rid of it.
The question is, who stole the body?
The culprit would have to have belonged to one of three general groups – the soldiers, religious leaders, or Jesus’ own disciples.
We can rule out the enemies of Jesus from stealing the body. His enemies could have stopped the news of his resurrection right at the start. All they would have had to do was produce the body.
Why would Jesus’ enemies strengthen the claim of the resurrection by keeping the body hidden? That doesn’t make sense. His missing body would only fuel the idea of a resurrection, not defeat it. In fact, why would Jesus’ enemies have stolen his body in the first place?
If anyone stole the body, Jesus’ disciples would have to be the prime suspects. They had the most to gain for hiding the body. A resurrected Jesus, in the mind of the public, would make him the God he claimed to be.
However, let’s take a closer look at the disciples’ state of mind.
They were hiding in the upper room, probably fearing that the religious leaders were coming after them next. Yet, they suddenly became bold.
In Acts 5:29, after the resurrection when both Peter and John were told to quit healing people in the name of Jesus Christ, Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than man.”
Something radical had to have happened to have made such a drastic change in their state of mind.
The disciples had seen and heard the risen Jesus. I believe that one of the greatest pieces of evidence for proving the resurrection is the changed lives of the men who closely followed him.
From Cowards to Martyrs
When men are willing to be cut into pieces by a sword, dragged behind horses until their skin was shredded, and hung upside down on a barbaric cross, what they were saying that led to their deaths ought to be investigated. Their motives need to be considered.
People seldom die for what they know is a lie. If they had just made it all up, surely one of the men would have cracked in the face of his torturous death. But, not one of them did.
Each disciple, as well as over five hundred people who saw Jesus at the same time, was convinced Jesus was alive.
The resurrection of Jesus is the most amazing historic event of all time. Its implications for living in today’s uncertain world are staggering.
The reality of Jesus living in and through us today is dependent on the reality of his resurrection.
If he did not resurrect, he cannot live through us. If Jesus did resurrect, he can and does live through his followers.
Based on the evidence, what conclusion have you come to:
Resurrected or Not Resurrected?
The original of this article was published in Wes Neal’s semi-monthly e-newsletter Not Me, But Jesus, a work of his ministry by the same name. Still in development you can visit Wes’s website.
© 2014 Used by permission