Our Lord had himself always prophesied, under different forms of expression, that by his countrymen He would be given up to the heathen, and that by their hands He would be crucified, or “lifted up;” that is, lifted up on the cross. This was a Roman and not a Jewish punishment, and therefore showed his prescience that his death, although brought about by the Jews, would be inflicted by the Romans, who introduced this form of capital punishment in all their wide dominions, except for those who had the privilege of Roman citizens, who were beheaded. It was essentially the most ignominious form of death, as hanging is with us.
The execution of our Lord was conducted according to the ordinary forms of this punishment, except in some particulars, which were modified to meet the peculiar objections of the Jews in regard to some parts of it.
We may now proceed to trace the circumstances of this punishment; and this may be the more interesting, as death by crucifixion had been abolished many centuries before it began to be represented by the painters, from whom the general ideas of it are derived, and who, having no materials of actual observation, made some considerable mistakes in important particulars, which we are now enabled to correct, by the aid of writers who lived while this punishment was in use.
The places of execution were always outside the walls of towns. At Jerusalem it was upon a swell of ground called Golgotha—the place of a skull—some say on account of the skulls of dead criminals that lay about there, forgetting that the Jews never suffered either the bodies or bones even of criminals to remain unburied. The name was therefore doubtless derived from the skull-like shape of the hill—for we are not bound to credit the tradition, that it was thus named because the skull of Adam had been found there.
Both among Jews and Romans executions took place immediately after conviction. It was usual first to scourge those who were to be crucified; but Jesus had been already scourged, and was therefore at once led away to this place for execution. Among the Romans, as among the Jews, and as now in France, soldiers were much employed in the apprehension and punishment of criminals. It was to soldiers, therefore, under the command of a centurion, that the crucifixion of our Lord, and of two robbers to be executed at the same time, was committed. The German legion is known to have been at that time stationed in Palestine, and it was probably to soldiers of that legion the execution was entrusted.
Jesus, after having been given over to execution, had been divested of his robes of mockery, and his own simple raiment was restored to Him. He was then led to Golgotha. The condemned always walked, and the distance was in this case not considerable. They had not only to walk, but to carry the cross on which they were to be crucified. This indeed was a part, and a grievous part, of the punishment; and it served to show to the people the nature of the procession, and to indicate the person of the criminal. That this was possible and usual, shows that either the scourging previous to execution was less severe than is usually supposed, or that the cross was not so large and ponderous as is commonly represented. This was certainly the case, the cross being simply strong enough to sustain the weight of a human body, and high enough to raise the feet a little above the ground. It is true that our Lord could not long carry the cross; but others did, and it was usual to do so. This fact, however, proves that it was heavy enough to be a good load for a man, and the one actually to be used in the execution, and not merely a light representation of it, as is sometimes imagined. Our Lord, exhausted by his previous sufferings of body and mind, fainted under the burden; and it being clear that He could carry it no further, the soldiers seized hold of a man coming in from the country, and compelled him to bear it after Jesus. This person was Simon the Cyrenian—that is, of Cyrene in Africa; whether as originally from thence, but now settled in Jerusalem or its neighborhood, or as having come from thence to the Passover. We suppose that the latter was the case, for there seems no reason why he should have been selected, but that his being seen to be a stranger marked him out for a task too degrading to be forced upon a native Jew. There were probably disciples in the crowd, who would have been glad to have volunteered to perform this office for their revered Master, but were deterred by the fear of bringing suspicion upon themselves. Some think Simon was a disciple of Christ, and that he was singled out on account of the special marks of interest and sympathy he manifested. One would suppose, however, that a disciple of Jesus would hardly have been away that morning, and coming in just then. But the notice by Mark, that he was “the father of Alexander and Rufus,” persons evidently well known to the early church, suggests that he and his did afterwards become eminent disciples; and that as now literally, so afterwards did he spiritually, take up his cross and follow Him—finding thus a glorious reward for his labor.
A great crowd, as might be expected, followed the sad procession—many of them the same persons who, a few days before, had made themselves hoarse in shouting hosannas as Jesus entered in Messianic triumph the gate of the city opposite to that which He was now leaving, as a prisoner condemned to die. What was the general feeling now among those who witnessed that dismal sight, we know not; but we know that the women, of whom there were many, bewailed and lamented Him without restraint. This attracted our Lord’s attention; and He turned and said to them—“Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children;” and then went on to warn them shortly of the evils of the coming time.
The cross consisted of a strong upright post, sharpened at the lower end, by which it was planted in the ground, having a short bar or stake projecting from its middle, and a larger transverse beam firmly joined near its top. In short, it was much as usually represented, but not generally so high; and that in all representations the middle bar is omitted, and this is a serious difference, as much of the weight of the crucified person rested on this bar, on which he in some sort sat; whereas, without this, the whole weight of the body would have been suspended from the spikes driven through the hands and feet. This seat, if we may so call it, rendered the death less torturing, but more lingering, and helps to account for the length of time the crucified, under ordinary conditions, remained alive upon the cross.
Arrived at the place of execution, the condemned man was divested of his clothing; and was usually presented with a cup of wine, sometimes medicated, with a view to impart firmness or alleviate pain. This cup was offered to our Lord, but He refused it, choosing to endure all that was laid upon Him with a clear and perfect consciousness. The condemned was then speedily nailed to the cross, either before or after its erection. In either case, he was made to sit upon the middle bar, and his limbs having been extended and bound with cords, were finally secured with large iron spikes driven through their extremities, the hands to the transverse beam, and the feet to the upright post. The feet were usually nailed separately, but sometimes one long spike was driven through both feet. The pain was of course dreadful; but the wounds were not in themselves dangerous, nor was there much loss of blood—no important artery being severed. It was at this agonizing moment that our Lord prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Thus did He “make intercession for the transgressors,” as had been foretold of Him; and afforded a grand example of magnanimity to all his followers who might suffer for righteousness’ sake.
It was usual for the Romans to put a “title,” or inscription, at the top of the cross, to denote the offence of the crucified person: a custom observed also by the Turks in their analogous punishment of impalement. In the provinces, these inscriptions were in different languages, so that all might be able to understand for what offence the criminal was executed. The title set upon our Lord’s cross was in the vernacular “Hebrew,” or rather Chaldo-Syriac, the language of Judea; in Latin, the language of the Romans; and in Greek, the language most generally spoken in the eastern parts of the Roman empire. At first, Pilate may have ordered the inscription to be made out with no particular regard to its import. It was, “This is the King of the Jews.” But finding, from their complaints, that it was unpleasant to the priests, whom he detested, he exulted in their annoyance, and refused to alter it to—“He said, I am the King of the Jews.”
Jesus now hung upon the cross; and the soldiers proceeded at leisure to divide the poor spoil his garments afforded. They fund no difficulty but with the outer garment, which was the most valuable article of his dress; and which, being woven throughout—that is, seamless—could not be divided without destroying its value. For this, therefore, they cast lots: thus fulfilling, with astonishing precision, a prediction concerning Christ, of which they had never heard—“They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture did they cast lots.” Note: Psa_22:18.
And how were those who beheld it affected by this awful spectacle? Alas for human nature! all the sympathy which that spectacle was calculated to excite was confined to his mother, whose heart the long-predicted sword had at length pierced; to one beloved disciple, who alone ventured to be present there; to a few women from Galilee, who had to the last been faithful and true; and to one of the robbers who hung in torture by his side. For the rest, all the evil passions which haunt man’s nature, seemed roused to make bitter the last hours of the Redeemer. The soldiers mocked Him; the passers-by reviled Him; one of the robbers upbraided Him; and even chief-priests, scribes, and Pharisees, members of the supreme court of justice, losing every feeling of humanity, and all respect for the dignity of their rank and character, treated Him with extreme cruelty. At length the sun refused any longer to behold such wickedness. It withdrew, and left the world in darkness, while He who was the Light of the world was about to expire. This darkness lasted three hours, from twelve to three o’clock (the crucifixion having commenced at nine), when the Redeemer rendered up his soul to his Father.
And what, meanwhile, was His demeanor? Unmoved by the taunts and insults which were cast upon Him, or by the sufferings He endured, no complaints, or murmurings, or upbraidings, were heard from Him. His thought was still all for others, not for himself. And He still, while thus hanging in torture between earth and heaven, found scope for the exercise of his benevolence: bestowing hope and comfort on one of the malefactors who hung by his side; and, with filial affection, recommending his beloved mother to the care of his beloved disciple.
During part of the time the darkness lasted, our Lord appears to have relapsed into his garden agony. It seems to have been part of the Divine plan, that He should again labor under the biding of the Father’s face, and again be oppressed by the consciousness of the weight and burden of that sin in man for which He laid down his life. At length He cried in agony, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me!” The agony passed, and left Him thirsty and faint. On his intimating this to the soldiers, they soaked a sponge in vinegar, and lifted it upon the top of a reed to his mouth. Presently after, He knew that his task was accomplished; that He had endured and suffered all; that nothing more was required from Him as the price of man’s redemption; and that He was, therefore, free to lay aside that flesh in which He had suffered so long. It was then He cried out, “It is finished!” All was finished. Nothing that He had undertaken remained incomplete. Man was saved; and He was free to depart. It was then that He bowed his head, and resigned into his Father’s hands his spirit. He died.
He whose birth had been signally celebrated, could not thus finish his great task and leave the earth unnoticed. The vail of the temple, separating the holy from the most holy place, was rent in twain—signifying the ending of the ritual and restricted dispensation of Moses, and that full light was now to be let in upon the mysteries of the heavenly kingdom. Even the earth trembled: rocks were rent asunder; and the tombs were burst open, and sent forth their dead. The impression made by these circumstances was great. Those who had remained thus long through the darkness, now “smote their breasts, and returned.” And the centurion, beholding these circumstances, together with the demeanor of our Savior, and the marked yielding up of his life so much before the usual time, could not restrain the exclamation, “Truly, this was the Son of God!”
It was the custom of the Romans to leave the crucified upon the cross till they expired; and, indeed, to leave even the dead bodies upon them, for an example and a warning. But the Jewish law directed that the bodies of those who were hanged up for exposure, should be taken down and buried before sunset; whereby the land of Israel was happily exempted from those shocking spectacles which have been frequent in all lands, and which have only within living memory been banished from our own. Accordingly, in Palestine, the Romans departed from their usual custom, and dispatched those upon the cross who remained alive towards the close of day. They almost invariably were alive then, for crucifixion was an exceedingly lingering death; and, unless under peculiar circumstances, it was rare for any one to expire in less than thirty-six hours, and many lived several days. The men who came to examine the bodies before taking them down, found the two robbers alive; and dispatched them by breaking their legs with a bar of iron. But when they came to Jesus, they were astonished to find Him already dead; but to make sure, as He might possibly be in a swoon, one of them ran a spear into his side. This alone would have been sufficient to kill Him, had He still lived; but the blood and water which flowed forth from the wound, showed that He was already dead.
Jesus was not to find an unhonored grave. One of his disciples was a person of wealth and dignity, named Joseph, of Arimathea, who was, like Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin. This person now scrupled not to manifest his attachment to Christ; for he went boldly to Pilate, to request that the body might be given up to him for interment. It is worthy of note, that Pilate also was astonished to learn that Jesus had died so soon; showing that it was altogether a very extraordinary circumstance. He readily granted the application. And the time being short, Joseph hastily removed the body; and, after wrapping it up with a large quantity of costly spices provided by Nicodemus, deposited it in a new sepulcher of his own, in a garden but little distant from the place of crucifixion. They then departed, after rolling a great stone to the mouth of the sepulcher.