Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

225. Crucifixion (Matt. 27:34,54; Mark 15:23,24,39; Luke 23:33,34,47; John 19:18)*

There has been much discussion as to the shape of the cross of Jesus. It is a matter of little consequence. No great issues depend upon the answer. The word for "cross" is (literally) 'a stake', and the Greek verb for 'crucify' is derived from the same root. This would seem to suggest that the cross was not really a cross but simply an upright pole. But it is a known fact that this same Greek word was used for all forms of crucifixion, and there were at least three other types of cross:

  1. The T shape,
  2. The St. Andrew's cross,
  3. The traditional form
Of these the first two can probably be ruled out by the fact that "they set over his head his accusation written." There is one further line of Biblical evidence which tends to rule out the third in favour of the upright stake. "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up." (Jn. 3:14). Ezra 6.11RV also uses this expression "lifted up." It would suggest that crucifixion was a Persian practice long before the Romans came on the scene. Since Moses was commanded: "Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole (or standard)," it seems likely, but not certain, that the Lord's experience was similar. And there, none too conclusively, the matter must rest.


Before Jesus was actually impaled on the cross, "they gave him vinegar mingled with gall." The vinegar was wine and the gall myrrh (Mk). It is usually assumed that the myrrh was given as a narcotic. There is a passage in the Talmud which points to this interpretation. The Talmud also states that there existed in Jerusalem a society of charitable women who made themselves responsible for providing a drink of this nature for all who were condemned to crucifixion —this in obedience to the Scripture: "Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more" (Pr. 31:6,7).

The chief difficulty here is that the narcotic powers of myrrh are not very marked, so that one is left wondering why some other more potent drug was not used for this purpose. Opium, for example, was in very common use at that time. Is it possible that Mark employs the expression "myrrhed wine" not only to suggest that the drink was medicated but also in order to make more pointed allusion to the symbolic gift of the Wise Men (Mt. 2:11)? On the other hand Matthew has the word "gall" so as to establish contact with a remarkable prophecy of Messianic suffering: "They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink" (Ps. 69:21).

Whatever its purpose, by contrast with the "vinegar" offered to him later in the day, now, "when he had tasted, he would not drink." The wording here suggests that Jesus was glad enough to take the drink that was put to his lips, but when the first taste of it told him what its purpose was, he would not have it.

It was offered him repeatedly (so the Greek verb would suggest), and as often refused. A different potion was appointed for him: "The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink if"? And to have faced crucifixion and death in a state of stupefaction would have been, in a sense, to have turned away from the cup which his Father now held out to him. In any case there yet remained work-his Father's work-to be done, as the gospels abundantly demonstrate, and for this a clear mind was necessary.

Suffering for sin

It is surely strange that one of the most remarkable archeological findings in Israel in recent years should have gone almost unnoticed —the discovery very near Jerusalem of the remains of a man who was crucified in the first century.

The experts were able to deduce that in his crucifixion one large nail was used to transfix the back of both feet to the cross. The Achilles tendon is one of the toughest pieces of tissue in the human body. Hence the procedure.

Now it is possible to see even more relevance than ever in the gospel promise made in Eden: "Thou (the serpent) shalt bruise his heel" (Gen. 3:15).

It was now "the third hour" —nine o'clock in the morning. The actual crucifixion is described in the briefest of phrases: "Golgotha, where they crucified him." Matthew's gospel disposes of it in a mere participial clause: "and having crucified him, they parted his garments . . .", as though the later activity were far more important than the former— as indeed it was, to the Roman soldiers.

This brevity and simplicity of phrase in describing the physical experiences of Jesus is in marked contrast with the purple style which modern reporting would adopt for such an occurrence. All through the gospels, and in this section especially the restraint and complete absence of all striving after effect is such as to set these writings in a class by themselves. Yet each reader, if this curse of "hanging on a tree" was for his sake, is under a moral obligation to fill in for himself his own understanding and appreciation of the pain and torment, the wretchedness and shame of it all. The mind instinctively recoils from the contemplation of such hard inhuman cruelty to "the Altogether Lovely." Nevertheless, it is a mental task that should not be evaded, that there might be clearer realization just how foul is the foulness of sin in those whom Jesus came to save from its dominion.

See Jesus, then, stripped of his garments, so that, amongst all the other curses of humanity, he might share the shame of Adam's nakedness. (Gen. 3:8-11). See him flung down, not too gently, and stretched out weary and sore on the rough contraption that was to be his gibbet. See him held there, a soldier kneeling on one arm, whilst his fellow callously, almost casually, hummers a nail through first one palm, and than the other, and last of all through his feet also. Imagine the searing, angry pain, more savage at each repeated blow of the hammer. See the crimson trickles of blood, in which is the Life, meandering away to be lost in the dry soil. See the face of the Crucified distorted with pain as the cross with its burden is clumsily brought upright. Imagine the sickening jar in hands and feet as the cross thuds into the socket prepared for it in the ground, but especially hear the brief, earnest prayer that mingles with the stream of oaths and imprecations proceeding from the other crosses: ''Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

The shame of it
Then followed one endless hour after another of searing pain, dull ache and torturing thirst, all competing for dominance in the unutterably weary mind of the sufferer. Yet when the Bible alludes to the crucifixion of Jesus it is never in terms of the agony of the experience but the shame of it all:

"Jesus . . . endured the cross, despising the shame" (Heb. 12:2).
"The reproach of Christ. . . (Heb. 11:26).
"Let me not be ashamed, O Lord; for! have called upon thee: let the wicked be ashamed ..."(Ps. 31:17).
"Let not them that wait on thee be ashamed for my sake (RV: through me) . . . for thy sake I have borne reproach; shame hath covered my face . . . They that sit in the gate speak against me, and I was the song of drunkards . . . Thou hast known my reproach, and my shame, and my dishonour. . . Reproach hath broken my heart, and I am full of heaviness. .."(Ps. 69:6,7,12,19,20).
Numbered with transgressors

In John's description of the crucifixion there is a remarkable redundancy of phrase: ". . they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst." This was doubtless intended to be meaningful. These men were rebels against the established order, and here was Jesus in their midst with the title of King, as though he were a king among rebels. And so indeed he has been throughout the centuries. This triple crucifixion was doubtless so arranged, with Jesus on the centre cross, by command of Pilate. It was his way of declaring to Jewry: 'Your precious Barabbas should be here.'

It has been, conjectured, with fair probability, that some time during that Passover day Barabbas must have gone out to Golgotha impelled by a strong natural curiosity to see this man through whose death he himself, against all expectation and all deserving, had suddenly been given life and freedom. What Barabbas might well have said to himself then, the disciple in every generation can also say with much more truth as he reads the crucifixion story: 'That man hangs where I should be. He, undeserving, suffers the punishment which is my due. Through him I am saved from death and given liberty.'

But John's words also draw attention to the central Bible truth concerning Jesus that "he was numbered with the transgressor:" (Is. 53:12), which words are explicitly quoted in Mark's gospel at this point. It is a pity that modern editors of the text, following their own theories about the manuscripts, have chosen to omit the words, when there is such strong evidence in their favour.

The way in which John writes here may be taken as a subtle indication that he associated this prophecy with the crucifixion. Yet Jesus himself appropriated the same words to a different circumstance (Lk. 22:35-37)-the fact that his disciples would henceforth be reckoned offenders against society, and himself the worst of all.

Yet in neither case-Mark or Luke-can it be said that this prophecy of the Suffering Servant of Jehovah is given its true application. Only too obviously its real intention ii to stress the complete one-ness of Jesus with those whom he came to save. "Numbered with the transgressors" —the words are Isaiah's equivalent of the fine familiar phrases in Hebrews: "Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same ... in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren .. . For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted" (2:14,17,18).

But of course the gospels are not in error in their use of the Isaiah passage. Clearly the disciples had come to see Jesus' crucifixion along with two malefactors as emblematic of the deeper more valuable truth concerning himself. And the rest of his experience with these two men goes to confirm strongly this impression. As they showed themselves for what they were — the one a railer and blasphemer, the other rising to a matchless confession of a faith which received its assurance of everlasting blessedness- so also will all who claim to have died with Christ. In the day of his glory they will find themselves at his left hand or at his right, gnashing their teeth or marvelling at the loving kindness of the Lord.

This crucifying of Jesus between two thieves makes a powerful contrast with an earlier incident in his ministry. It was when Jesus "set his face stedfastly to go to Jerusalem" and when the disciples "thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear" that the sons of Zebedee came nsking "that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory" (Mk. 10:37). After all, they were the Lord's cousins, his nearest of kin among all who had confessed discipleship. So was not this honour theirs by right? The answer of Jesus was another question: "Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" Their answer-a blithe confident affirmative.

But now one of the two was present, close to the cross, and must have thought with shame of that conversation. This, then, was the cup that Jesus had spoken of. Could they drink of that? And could they substantiate a claim to deserve being at his right and his left in his kingdom if they were not there in his agony and humiliation also where now the two suffered and cursed?

"Father, forgive them"

At this time, however, Jesus was concerned with neither thieves nor disciples nor himself, but with the Roman soldiers meting out such torture to him: "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do." The Greek verb implies that the prayer was repeated several times.

That this prayer was for his Roman crucifiers and not for the Jews who rejected him is made clear, first, by the lucid sequence of pronouns in Luke 23:34, and also by the words of the Lord's own parable: "This is the heir: come, let us kill him . . . They perceived that he had spoken this parable against them" (Lk. 20:14,19). The Lord's words in another place confirm that these Jewish leaders certainly knew what they were doing: "If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin; but now they have no cloke for their sin ... If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father" (Jn. 15:22,24).

"I wot that through ignorance ye did it" (Acts 3:17) seems to tell a different story; but not really, for this word agnoia is used frequently in LXX for a sin done in blameworthy ignorance. So Peter was not excusing the crucifixion of Jesus. The rulers, knowing enough of the truth about Jesus, might have known a great deal more but for their own obduracy.

In any case the prophetic Scriptures, in so many things the guide and stay of the Son of God, had plainly bidden him three times over: "Pray not for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me: for I will not hear thee" (Jer. 7:16; 11:14; 14:11). At least two of these three passages have an unmistakably Messianic context (7:11 = Mk.ll:17; 7:13 = Mt. 23:37; ll:19=is. 53:7,8; 14:12 = Rev.6:4,5,6,8).

Prayer answered

If, then, it was for the soldiers who crucified him that Jesus prayed and not for his Jewish rejectors it may surely be taken us certain that such a prayer offered at such a time by such a Man would be heard by the Father and the response that he sought granted him. These men were forgiven the dreadful thing which they had done.

But since it is a cardinal truth in God's plan of redemption that forgiveness of sins comes only through faith in Christ (even for those also who died under the Old Covenant: Rom. 3:24-26; Heb. 9:15), then is it not to be expected that the answer to the prayer of the crucified Jesus meant that ultimately these Gentile executioners were to come to a fuller knowledge of the Nazarene and to acceptance of his service in lieu of Caesar's?

Considerations such as these almost require the remarkable conclusion with which all the synoptists round off their narrative of the Lord's earthly life. As Jesus died, the centurion in charge of the squad stood facing him (Mk.), as though in some way fascinated by this dying man. Yet in his years of service he must have seen many men die, not a few of them by crucifixion. Evidently what he had witnessed this day—the demeanour and words of Jesus, and the darkness and earthquake (the anger of God)-had made a mighty impression on his mind-and not on his mind only, but also on the soldiers doing duty with him (Mt. 27:54). These rough men had begun by joining in the mockery of Jesus (Lk. 23:36), but now officer and men alike "feared exceedingly", and said: "Certainly this man was righteous" (Lk.), that is, "innocent" (RSV). More than this, they "glorified God", for they also said: "Truly this man was the Son of God" (Mk.). To translate "a Son of God", as some of the modern versions do, is an attempt to bring the meaning down to what is evidently deemed to be the limited comprehension of an ignorant Gentile. But in every other place in the gospels the identical anarthrous phrase means "the Son of God." If the Greek phrase had read "a son of the gods," this weaker translation might have been justified.

Was it not remarkable that a Roman should go so far as to say "This man was the Son of God"? He had seen and heard enough that day to be led to confess: "This was a good man/'or: "This was a remarkable man," or even: "This was a holy man"; but why "The Son of God"? This centurion had been on duty earlier when the priests shouted at Pilate: "He ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God"; and also he had heard Jesus say: "Father, forgive 'hem they know not what they do."

There is also a fair likelihood that he and his men had heard and understood the Lord's reciting of Psalm 22 (Study 232) especially these words "Thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother's breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother's belly" (v.9,10). so there is nothing improbable about the fulness of conviction which his confession appears to express.

Some readers may also find special meaning in the connection of Roman soldiers gambling for the garments of Jesus and the words of faith: "If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole" (Mt. 9:21).

Such a remarkable accumulation of detail about these soldiers at the cross develops in the mind of the thoughtful reader a half-expectation that somehow these men must ultimately have been brought by God to a fuller knowledge of the Truth in Christ and to personal acceptance of the forgiveness of sins which is possible only in him. Certain considerations suggest the likelihood of this.

The centurion and soldiers on duty at Golgotha would also be the men set to guard the tomb of Jesus, for did not Pilate say: "Ye have a watch"? (Mt. 27:65). It was these men who had the best evidence of all that Jesus rose from the dead (Mt. 28:2-4). And it was only some of them (28:11) who took the bribe of the Jewish rulers. The effect on the others was evidently different.

Again, is it just coincidence that the man through whom the outreach of the gospel of salvation to Gentiles was to be divinely demonstrated was "a centurion ... a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house"? Here, evidently, was an officer, now retired from service, having a settled home and a retinue of household servants and also "devout soldiers who assiduously adhered to him" (Acts 10:7). Whilst there is nothing in the narrative in Acts to link Cornelius specifically with the centurion who was at the cross, all the details and circumstances are such as would fit most harmoniously with what the gospels record. It was even possible for Peter to say to Cornelius and those with him: "That word (concerning Jesus) ye (already) know", and this with a fulness of detail which is not readily accounted for.

The identification of these two centurions with one another can hardly be regarded as proven; yet there is a marvellous fitness about this, that the last hours of Jesus should see the conversion not only of Simon of Cyrene and of the crucified thief, not only of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea, but also of the firstfruits of the Gentiles as well.

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