In our last essay we studied Luke 22:66-23:25 in which we saw the trials of Jesus before the Jewish Council, Pilate and Herod. In this essay we are studying 23:26-49 in which we find the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Death by crucifixion was one of the cruelest and most degrading forms of execution ever devised by humanity. Normally the criminal was stripped naked. And after being scourged, his outstretched arms were nailed or tied to the crossbeam. The crossbeam was then lifted up with the body on it and fastened to an upright stake already sunk into the earth. The feet were then nailed to the upright beam, which had a block of wood attached to it that served as a sort of saddle for the victim’s body. That enabled the weight of the body to rest on the wooden block.
Crucifixion was largely death by exhaustion. It caused a burning fever, extreme thirst, stiffening of the joints, and great pain. The agony would increase hour by hour; and many victims would suffer for a couple of days before expiring. Often it was a build-up of fluid in the lungs that finally did the victims in.
The Romans learned the practice from the Carthaginians, who had learned it from the Persians. The Romans reserved crucifixion for slaves and the worst of criminals who were not citizens of Rome. Such a death would have been unthinkable for a Roman citizen, regardless of the crime committed.
It was standard practice to carry out executions outside city walls. But it was done near a busy road so that a maximum number of people could observe it and be deterred from committing the same crime. An officer and four soldiers carried out the sentence. The officer walked to the place of execution ahead of the soldiers and the condemned man. He carried a placard that stated the crime committed by the criminal. The purpose of the placard was deterrence. The Romans wanted everyone to know that such crimes would result in crucifixion.
The location of Jesus’ execution was a place called “Golgotha” in Aramaic. The word means “a skull.” The word “Calvary,” which we hear so often in relation to this place is the Latin word for “skull.” As we see in Luke (v. 26), somewhere along the route to Calvary, the Romans forced a man, Simon of Cyrene, to carry Jesus’ cross, apparently because Jesus no longer had the strength to carry it himself.
Verses 27-31 are not found in Mark or Matthew. In them Luke tells us that a large crowd followed the procession, and certain women were wailing for Jesus. But he turned to them and told them not to weep for him but for themselves and their children. He knew that a time was coming when there would be such suffering that the women of Jerusalem would wish they had not had children, perhaps a reference to the coming horrors of the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70. The idea set forth in the saying in verse 31 about green and dry wood is that if the Romans were crucifying Jesus (the green wood that does not burn easily), what would happen to the Jews (the dry wood that does burn easily).
Next, in verses 33-38, comes the crucifixion itself. Mark (15:23) and Matthew (27:34) tell us something at this point that Luke does not. According to Jewish tradition respected women of Jerusalem provided a narcotic drink to those condemned to death in order to deaden the excruciating pain. When Jesus arrived at Golgotha he was offered, presumably by the women since this was a Jewish rather than a Roman custom, wine mixed with myrrh. But he refused it, choosing to endure the suffering with full consciousness as he fulfilled his Father’s will.
Jesus’ statement from the cross in 23:34 is recorded only in Luke: “Father, forgive them: for they do not know what they are doing.” This prayer of forgiveness by Jesus was one of the most, if not the most, profound statements in history. There he was, hanging on a cross, being executed in the most cruel, horrible manner possible. And yet he prayed for forgiveness for his executioners. If nothing else Jesus said or did would convince us that he believed what he taught about loving enemies, this ought to do it.
The standard items of clothing were the inner garment, the outer robe, sandals, a belt (sometimes translated “girdle”), and a head covering. The soldiers who carried out the executions traditionally were given the clothing of the victims. It was a small “perk” for doing a “dirty” job. In this case the soldiers decided to gamble for who got which pieces.
Mark (15:25) tells us that Jesus was crucified at the third hour, which would be 9:00 o’clock in the morning. This raises an interpretive problem, because it is in apparent conflict with John 19:14-16, where it is said that Pilate pronounced his verdict at “about the sixth hour,” which would be at noon. There are a number of complex solutions, or attempted solutions, to the problem. I will not rehearse them, because it would divert us from our primary purpose.
You will notice in verses 35-37 that both the Jewish leaders and the soldiers taunted Jesus. Mark (15:29-30) tells us that passers by also derided Jesus. And they contemptuously challenged Jesus to save himself from the cross if he was God’s Messiah.
In verse 39 we see that one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus also taunted him. But the other became repentant. The repentant thief understood that they were about to meet God. And he also understood that he was deserving of his fate, whereas Jesus was not. That was why he said to the unrepentant one, “Do you not fear God?” To “fear God” in this context means to fear his judgment. Thus the repentant thief became another witness to Jesus’ innocence in the Lukan account (Pilate and Herod Antipas were the others: Lk. 23:14-15.)
The repentant thief asked to be remembered at the Messiah’s second coming. But he received much more than he asked. He received heaven when he died that day: “today you will be with me in Paradise,” said Jesus.
In verse 44 we are told that darkness came over the land for three hours. Some have wanted to explain the darkness as a solar eclipse, and then became upset to learn that a solar eclipse is impossible at Passover time. This was not a solar eclipse. The darkness was miraculous. And it was symbolic. You may remember that there was a plague of darkness over Egypt prior to the Exodus, which also was at Passover. That miraculous darkness symbolized the spiritual darkness of Egypt. The miraculous darkness at Jesus’ death symbolized the spiritual darkness of the world as he died at the world’s hands.
Notice that the temple veil was torn in two (v. 45). Mark (15:38) and Matthew (27:51) tell us that it was torn from top to bottom suggesting that God did the tearing. And God’s message was plain. He was finished with the Old Covenant and temple worship.
The report of the tearing of the temple veil has a difficulty associated with it. There are two possibilities for the veil in question. One possibility is that it was the outer veil that separated the court of women from the Holy Place. That veil was visible to the Jewish public; and if that were the veil in question, then the tearing of the veil was a public symbol of God’s tearing of his old way of relating to the people. It was a symbolic way of saying I don’t live here any more. I will relate to my people in a new way in the future.
The second possibility is that it was the inner veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. In that case, the symbolism would have been similar, though more forceful. The symbolism of God’s rejection of temple worship would have been more powerful, because the Holy of Holies was the place where God actually dwelled. Moreover the rending of that veil would have strongly symbolized the free access by all to God under the new covenant. The Book of Hebrews emphasizes that aspect. Under the Old Covenant only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies once each year. But under the new covenant all can enter at any time.
Although it is impossible to know with certainty which veil was torn, I prefer the outer veil suggestion, because only a few priests would have seen it had it been the inner veil. And they would have gone to great lengths to keep the event quiet. Such would not have been possible with the outer veil. Everyone would have known about it. And that was God’s intention.
Mark and Matthew tell us of a word from the cross that Luke does not tell us. They say that at three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This so-called “cry of dereliction” is a quotation from PS. 22:1. Some interpreters have been uncomfortable with Jesus’ statement, because they cannot understand how God could abandon his Son in this situation. So they seek ways to soften the meaning. But we must never forget that Jesus was suffering the consequences of our sin on the cross. Paul tells us that Jesus in a sense became sin on the cross. He was suffering the full extent of our alienation from God. His cry expressed the unfathomable pain of real abandonment by the Father. This was the cost of providing “a ransom for the many” (Mk. 10:45). This was the price of sin paid in full.
It was at that point that Jesus died. And as he died he uttered a loud cry. Luke alone provides the saying: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (v. 46). At this point Matthew provides additional information. In Matthew 27:52-53 certain persons were raised from the dead. There was an earthquake, or a supernatural movement of the earth that resembled an earthquake. And certain saints, perhaps martyrs, were raised from the dead. This event is disturbing to some readers. They don’t see the purpose of it.
In reality, there isn’t a lot that can be said about the event. We cannot be certain what God’s purpose was. Nor can we know exactly who the persons were, though they had to be Old Covenant saints. . However we can rest assured that they were brought back to physical life, as was Lazarus. That is, they were not resurrected in the sense that Jesus was. Rather as a sign of some kind, they were restored to physical life. The Greek of verse 53 is a bit ambiguous. Therefore it is uncertain whether Matthew meant they came out of their tombs after the resurrection of Jesus, or that they didn’t enter the city until after the resurrection.
Now coming back to Luke, look at his verse 47. The centurion evidently was the Roman officer who superintended the execution of Jesus. He undoubtedly realized that Jesus had not died the normal death of crucified men. Indeed the centurion was so impressed by the way Jesus handled himself on the cross and died, he spontaneously confessed Jesus as the Son of God.