This is lengthy…but I believe worth the read. At one point early in Julius Caesar's political career, feelings ran so high against him that he thought it best to leave Rome. So, he sailed for the Aegean island of Rhodes, but in route the ship was attacked by pirates and Caesar was captured. The pirates demanded a ransom of 12,000 gold pieces, and Caesar's staff was sent away to arrange the payment. Caesar spent almost 40 days with his captors, jokingly telling the pirates on several occasions that…he would someday capture and crucify every one of them to a man. The kidnappers were greatly amused, but when the ransom was paid and Caesar was freed, the first thing he did was gather a fleet and pursue the pirates. They were captured and crucified...to a man! (I guess he wasn’t joking after all). Such was the Romans' attitude toward crucifixion. It was to be reserved for the worst of criminals, a means of showing extreme contempt for the condemned. The suffering and humiliation of a Roman crucifixion were unequaled. And so this brings us to the place where we are in the story of Jesus. He has been betrayed, arrested, subjected to a mockery of a trial, questioned by Pilate and Herod, only to be turned over to be subjected to this most horrible of punishments. In fact, Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero, would say concerning crucifixion, “It was the most cruel and shameful of all punishments. Let it never come near the body of a Roman citizen.” So, let us consider what takes place as Jesus is delivered to be crucified, and what this means for us.
This mode of capital punishment was for the lowest kind of criminals, particularly those who promoted insurrection. Today, many think of the cross as a symbol of glory and victory. But, in Pilate’s day, the cross stood for the ultimate rejection, shame and suffering. It is with this understanding that Pilate delivers Jesus to the chief priests, and they…with the help of Roman soldiers…take Jesus to be crucified. It was customary for the criminal to carry his cross, or at least the crossbeam, from the hall of judgment to the place of execution. Jesus begins the mile long walk carrying His cross, but He receives some relief from Simon of Cyrene, whom the Roman soldiers draft to do the job. We are not given a reason as to why…apparently Jesus is run down, worn out. One thing is certain – bearing the cross is a mark of guilt, but Jesus is not guilty. It was also required that the criminal wear a placard over him announcing his crime, such as “thief,” “murderer.” Pilate writes, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” The chief priests protest the title, but Pilate refuses to change it. He knows that this statement embarrasses them. It is his final statement about the Jewish establishment, wanting it to be clear that this is their decision. Jesus is crucified outside of the city (Hebrews 13:11-13) between two others, possibly associates of Barabbas. They are notorious criminals, which fulfills Isaiah 53:12, “He was numbered with the transgressors.”
This all takes place at Golgotha, which means “cranium” or “skull.” “Calvary” is the Latin equivalent. Most executions were carried out in private, but Jesus is nailed to a cross and hung up for everyone to see. It is Passover season at this time, and so, there are thousands of visitors in the city. There are also soldiers there…it is their job. At most Roman executions, a centurion would be assigned with four soldiers to assist him. Since Jesus is a popular teacher with a large following, there are likely more guards there. It was a privilege for the soldiers to share whatever personal belongings the victims had, so they divide up all that Jesus owns, which would not have been much, but it does fulfill Psalms 22:18.
A group of women, along with the Apostle John, stand near the cross. John says they are – Mary, the mother of Jesus…Salome, his mother’s sister…Mary, the wife of Clopas…and Mary Magdalene. It takes great courage for these ladies and John to stand there in the midst of the hatred and ridicule that is displayed toward Jesus. But, their presence is certainly an encouragement to Jesus. Jesus assures His mother of His love for her, and gives John to be her “adopted son” to care for her. We know that he does care for her, and that she is among the believers in the Upper Room as they await Pentecost. (Acts 1:14) Our Lord understands what is taking place. As we have noted several times, Jesus is fully in control as He obeys His Father’s will. He refuses to drink the pain deadening wine that is offered to those who are to be crucified (Matthew 27:34), and this is in order to fulfill the Scriptures (Psalms 69:21). He says, “I thirst”, for He is enduring real, physical suffering, for He has a real human body. Jesus does take some vinegar offered to him by a soldier who shows Him some pity, but it does enable Him to utter His shout of triumph in a loud voice – “It is finished!” While it is true that Jesus’ sufferings are now complete, many of the Old Testament types and prophecies are now fulfilled, and the once-for-all sacrifice for sin is now fulfilled.
I thought it would be good to have a telling picture of what took place the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, so I go to the famous artist, Rembrandt. Rembrandt, the famous Dutch artist, painted his famous “Three Crosses” in 1653. The painting presents a harsh depiction of the Crucifixion of Jesus hanging lifeless between two thieves. At the foot of the cross are soldiers and onlookers. As you scan the crowd gathered at the foot of the cross, you’d notice how the Dutch Artist had captured various facial expressions and actions of the people. Some are laughing, some crying, others are bewildered. What is most fascinating about the painting, is a lone figure standing in the shadows (on the left). It is a representation of Rembrandt himself. This was Rembrandt’s way of saying, “I was there, too. My sins helped nail Jesus to the cross, too.” And we are there with Rembrandt, because it is also our sin that Jesus took to the cross. He went to the cross to die for all mankind…for slave and free, young and old, good and bad, and for people of every nationality and social status.
There are two groups of people involved in Jesus’ burial – the Roman soldiers and the Jewish believers. It was not unusual for victims to remain on a cross and experience a lingering death, so the Jewish leaders do all that they can to hasten the death of Jesus and the two thieves. Jesus dismissed His spirit at the ninth hour, which was 3 pm according to how they recognized their days. It is amazing that the Roman soldiers did not do what they were supposed to do – break all of the victims’ legs – but they did do what they were not supposed to do – pierce Jesus’ side. But, in both of these matters, they fulfill the Word of God. The bones of the Passover lamb were not to be broken (Exodus 12:46, Numbers 9:12), so Jesus’ bones are protected. However, one of the soldiers pierced His side (fulfilling Zechariah 12:10). John sees some special significance to the blood and water that comes from the wound in His side. For one thing, it proves that Jesus has a real, genuine body, and that He does experience death. In his first letter, John deals with evidence that Jesus is God come in the flesh, and He presents three symbolic witnesses -- the Spirit, the water and the blood. (1 John 5:7-8) The Spirit relates to what is going to take place at Pentecost, the water relates to His baptism by immersion, and the blood to His crucifixion. In each of these events, God makes it clear that Jesus is who He claimed to be…God come in the flesh. (19:35)
Once the soldiers are finished with their work, Jesus’ friends take over. God has prepared two high-ranking men to prepare His body for burial and to place it in a proper tomb. Joseph of Arimathea is an interesting character, for certain…he is rich (Matthew 27:57), a prominent member of the Jewish council (Mark 15:43), a good and righteous man who has not been in agreement with the council (Luke 23:50-51), and he is Jesus’ disciple. He, along with Nicodemus (whom we first meet back in chapter 3), make preparations for Jesus to have a decent burial. It is apparent that Nicodemus has become a full-fledged follower of Jesus at this point. It is important that these men follow where the Lord is leading them, because if Joseph and Nicodemus are not there, who knows what happens to the body of Jesus? Haste is important…it is important to get the body away from the Romans and the Jewish leaders…so, the men work quickly. Matthew, Luke and John all tell us that Joseph has this new tomb that has just been dug (and who knows for what reason) and it is here that he wants to bury Jesus. The men also assemble the cloths and spices needed for burial. What is apparent is that these two have done a lot of careful planning…none of this (getting costly spices for the preparation of the body, or securing the tomb) was going to take place at the last minute. Some of the other women are also there to witness Jesus’ burial. They are planning to return after the Sabbath and complete the burial procedures. Joseph and Nicodemus boldly identify with Jesus Christ at a time when it seems like all is a failure and His cause hopelessly defeated. The Sabbath is now about to dawn, and Jesus has fulfilled His work, the mission for which He came into the world.
The Roman emperor Charlemagne knew this. An interesting story surrounds the burial of this famous king. Legend has it that he asked to be entombed sitting upright in his throne. He asked that his crown be placed on his head and his scepter in his hand. He requested that the royal cape be draped around his shoulders and an open book be placed in his lap. That was A.D. 814. Nearly two hundred years later, Emperor Othello determined to see if the burial request had been carried out. He allegedly sent a team of men to open the tomb and make a report. They found the body just as Charlemagne had requested. Only now, nearly two centuries later, the crown was tilted, the mantle moth-eaten, the body disfigured. But open on the skeletal thighs was the book Charlemagne had requested…the Bible. One bony finger pointed to Matthew 16:26 "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" You can answer that one. (From The Applause of Heaven [Word Publishing, 1996] Max Lucado, p. 139-140).
I guess that this is a really good, pertinent question, isn’t it? Charlemagne seemed to understand it. It is true that, as the old saying goes, there are two certainties in life – death and taxes…well, make that three, the Cleveland Browns will be terrible. :-) But seriously, because of what happened with Adam and Eve in the Garden, we all have a meeting with the grave that we are going to make at some point. And as at all funerals, the question is – what was this person’s life about? I can honestly say that I have done some funerals where this question was easy to answer…and at other times, it has been much more complicated. The apostle Paul gives us a great illustration of comparison between Jesus’ experience and our own, when he says in Romans 6:3-4, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” The point that Paul makes is that…just as Jesus died on the cross for us, we have to die…die to ourselves. But that we must also be buried in a grave, just as Jesus was buried in a grave. But, our burial takes place in water, so that when resurrection takes place (which we will discuss next time), this also assures our own resurrection. But, when we are baptized, we are burying our old self so that our new self can come to life. This is critical. I believe Paul captures one of the best arguments for baptism, in that burial is a necessity because it connects us with Jesus.