The origins of crucifixion begin 800 years before Jesus' time with something called impaling. This process grew and changed over the centuries as more and more torturous elements were added by the Persians until the Romans perfected it to maximize suffering. By this time, it was considered to be "the most wretched of deaths" as the historian Josephus put it. It was indecent to even speak of crucifixion in public. The suffering was so severe that an entirely new word was invented to describe the pain. "Excruciating" literally means from the cross. Very rarely, women were crucified. When this happened, the woman was crucified facing the cross with only her back in view because people could not stand seeing the face of a woman in such agony.
But Jesus' suffering began before the crucifixion. When Jesus was arrested, he was beaten by a mob while blindfolded. He couldn't even see the blows coming to put his hands up to block some of their force. Blow after blow, Jesus was bruised and bloodied even before his official torture. His body was wracked with pain, swollen, and sore before the worst even began.
Jesus was then flogged by the Romans. Flogging was such a torturous experience that many men died from it. He was shamefully stripped naked in public and likely leaned over a stone and tied in place so that even when his body gave out he wouldn't be able to fall or roll over. A professional executioner then used a flagrum to beat his neck, back, legs, and buttocks. It was a handle with leather straps coming off of it. Each strap had balls made of stone and metal as well as sharp hooks. The balls served to beat and bludgeon the flesh to the point that it was soft and tender. The hooks would tear the flesh and the executioner would give a slight tug occasionally to make sure the hooks set in deep and then would pull the whole thing back to rip chunks of flesh from the body. This was done to Jesus over and over, leaving His body a bloodied mess.
They mocked Him with a crown of thorns on his head, sinking deep into the scalp and forehead. They handed him a crossbar weighing from one to two hundred pounds and laid it on his already weak, exhausted, wounded back and shoulders. Jesus was forced to carry this weight in his weakened state across the city of Jerusalem until he began to collapse in fatigue and pain. When he fell, the full weight of the bar would slam his chest and face into the ground.
They took large nails like railroad ties about six to seven inches long and hammered them into his hands or wrists and feet. Through some of the most sensitive nerve centers on the body, he is pierced and then the cross is lifted up. As it is raised, more and more of his weight falls onto his pierced hands and feet until the cross is dropped violently into the ground and his body shook and tore against the nails and wood.
One of the soldiers put a wet sponge on a stick and put it to Jesus' mouth. This is not a moment of compassion to quench His thirst. In Roman cities, public toilets were common. Instead of toilet paper, there were servants who would offer a stick with a sponge soaked in vinegar to those who used the facilities. They would use these same sponges to clean the toilets off. And the Roman guard took one of these when Jesus was thirsty and thrust it into His mouth.
While the crowd mocks Him and laughs at Him and his family and friends weep for Him, Jesus struggled on the cross for six hours. The weight of his body would slump forward on his ribs and diaphragm preventing his lungs from fully expanding and leaving him with little air to breath. In order to get air, He would have to put his weight on the nails in his feet, tearing the flesh more each time to stand and take a breath before collapsing forward again. And after six hours of total agony, He breathed His last and died.
The Cross: What Jesus Accomplished
It is frightening to picture anyone enduring such a thing. Yet it is even more unthinkable when we realize that this is how we treated God in the flesh. Why would He go through all of this for us? Theologians describe what Jesus did on the cross using many terms. Let me share ten of them with you.
- Justification (Romans 3:23-25) - You and I were guilty. We are legally responsible for our sins before God, our great Judge. Just as breaking a law in out city has legal consequences like jail time or fines, so too does breaking God's law. On the cross, Jesus paid the legal penalty and fine of death for our sins. We are no longer guilty before God, we have been justified. Our debt was paid in full.
- Propitiation (1 John 4:10, Romans 8:1) - You and I were under the wrath of God. Every time we sin against God we provoke the righteous anger and indignation of God. On the cross, the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus instead of us. There is now no condemnation for those whose faith is in Jesus.
- Expiation (1 John 1:7) - You and I have been sinned against and sin has dirtied us. Others have done things or said things to us that have left us feeling filthy and worthless. On the cross, Jesus took our dirt, shame, and filth on Himself and removed it from us. You and I have been cleansed of all our sin and shame.
- Redemption (Titus 2:13-14) - You and I were slaves to sin. Some of us know this generally, we cannot stop sinning. Others know it specifically through addictions we cannot break. We are in chains to the master of sin. On the cross, Jesus shattered the chains of sin and freed us from our slavery and bondage to it. You and I are free to live in holiness for God.
- Gift Righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21) - You and I were wicked, evil sinners. All of our works are like filthy rags to God because everything we do is tainted with our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. Jesus lived a perfect life that was fully pleasing to God. On the cross, Jesus gave us His righteousness. Figuratively speaking, He took off His clean clothes and traded them with us for our filthy ones. You and I are holy and righteous in the sight of God.
- Christus Victor (Colossians 2:13-25) - You and I were under the influence, authority, and dominion of Satan. He seeks to make our lives miserable and separate us from God forever. On the cross, Jesus conquered Satan and his authority in our lives. You and I have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. You and I have been given victory and authority over Satan and his demons.
- Christus Exemplar (1 Peter 2:21) - You and I were selfish. We take and expect things from others, always looking for what we will get out of something. On the cross, Jesus set for us the perfect example of what it looks like to serve others. You and I have a perfect example of love and service to follow after.
- Reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19) - You and I were enemies of God. By sinning, we declared war against God and, unlike popular sayings, God did not see us as His much loved children but as His foes. On the cross, Jesus brought peace and friendship between us and God. You and I are now the loving friends of God.
- Adoption (Ephesians 1:5) - You and I were sons of the devil. On the cross, Jesus made the way for us to gain a new Father. God has adopted us as His children. You and I are sons and daughters of the great King!
- Revelation (John 1:18) - You and I have not seen God. We cannot speak for God or guess what God is like. On the cross, Jesus revealed God perfectly to us. On the cross, the love, wrath, mercy, anger, justice, grace, soveriegnty, power, wisdom, knowledge, holiness of God and more are all perfectly represented and revealed. You and I know who God is and what He is like!