As we celebrate Easter, we rejoice in what God has done for us through the death of Jesus on the cross. Through His crucifixion, we are saved from the consequences of our sin, and when we stand before God, He sees us as completely righteous – Jesus’ innocence transferred to us.
For Jesus, God in man, this process was far from easy. He endured crucifixion, a slow, agonising type of execution which had been refined by the Roman empire into an art form whose purpose was to deter watching criminals from ever putting themselves in the path of a similar fate. And before facing this death, Jesus endured exhaustion, betrayal, and hours of physical and emotional abuse.
It began the night before, when Jesus, knowing what was to come, forewent sleep in favour of praying to His Father, in such emotional turmoil that great drops of sweat fell from Him to the ground. When the crowd came to arrest Him in the morning, He was already exhausted and likely dehydrated. After a trial before Caiaphas, He was blindfolded and beaten with fists, mocked all the while, leaving His face bruised and with possible injury to His tender mouth, nose and eyes. This was just the beginning.
The torture began in earnest with a flogging. Victims would have been stripped of their clothes and had their hands tied to a post above head height, leaving them unable to provide any protection with their arms. The flagellum used for the whipping consisted of several leather thongs, each with two small balls of lead or iron attached near the end. Jagged bits of sheep’s bone were sometimes included, designed to rip open the skin of the victim. As well as the welts raised by the leather and the possible ripping from the bone, Jesus’ shoulder, back and buttocks would have first been badly bruised by the metal balls, and then had the bruises burst open as the flogging continued. It begins with superficial cuts, then deepens, opening veins and arteries and causing deep tissue damage. The back, strong enough to bear our sins, was left a meaty mess.
Onto this bloody mess, the soldiers placed an ornate robe while they twisted together a crown of thorns for Jesus’ head, which they then proceeded to beat with a staff, driving the thorns into His skull and probably leaving considerable damage to the head. When the robe was torn off, it would have re-opened the wounds on Jesus’ back, causing them to bleed freely once again. But the ordeal was just beginning.
The crossbar for a Roman crucifixion cross would have weighed approximately 33 – 35 kgs – a burden which, although ordered to, Jesus no longer had the strength to carry. A bystander was ordered to help Him as He completed the long trek to the place of execution, where, on being offered a drink of wine mixed with myrrh, which would have dulled His pain, He refused. The nails which attached Jesus to the cross were then driven through His wrists, in between the two major bones in the arm. This placement allowed the nails to support His weight without ripping out of the hands, and as a side effect would have damaged the median sensorimotor nerve, causing excruciating pain in both arms. A similar nail was driven through both feet, one on top of the other, leaving the knees bent. Although this also caused nerve damage and excruciating pain, the executioner was careful to ensure that arteries in both the hands and feet were left undamaged, ensuring no major loss of blood, and thus a slower death. Jesus’ elbows would have been bent above His head in such a way that His weight hung from His hands, putting tremendous pressure on His chest and forcing Him to push up on His legs in order to take a breath – hanging from nailed hands, or pushing on nailed feet. After several hours of this, with a final cry, Jesus died. In most cases of crucifixion, the cause of death was a combination of shock and suffocation; based on the account of a surprisingly quick death, with a loud cry, it seems that Jesus may have had acute heart failure.
In God’s great mercy, the story does not end with suffering, torture and death. It continues into the wonderful account of Jesus’ resurrection, which paved the way for our resurrection, through Him, into eternal life. Our punishment, taken by Him. Our sin, borne on His whipped and bloodied shoulders. Our lives, saved by His death and His triumph over death. Easter ends, not with death, but with abundant life!