Human societies have developed many ways to execute criminals. Why was Jesus, who was innocent, willing to go through the horrors of crucifixion?
Throughout history, humans have established laws and punishments to enforce those laws. The ultimate punishment of the death penalty has been carried out in various and gruesome ways.
Crimes that brought the death penalty in the Old Testament included murder, kidnapping, adultery, prostitution, rape and cursing or striking one’s parents. The punishment was generally carried out by stoning, though there were other methods used as well.
Through the years, man has devised many other means to execute criminals. Ancient despots seemed bent on developing the most frightful and gruesome punishments: being cut in pieces, being burned alive and being thrown to lions, just to name a few (Daniel 2:5; 3:6; 6:7).
One primary form of capital punishment administered in the Roman Empire was that of crucifixion—the punishment the Jewish leadership sought for Jesus.
Jesus came with a message of peace, forgiveness and love, with the promise of eternal life for those who turned to Him. He broke no law, committed no crime and sanctioned no rebellion. However, He was considered a threat by those religious leaders who wanted to maintain their position in society. He was obedient to the ways of God His Father to the point of death (Philippians 2:6-8).
As a result of the message He was sent by His Father to teach, He was hated, accused of dastardly deeds, betrayed by a close associate, arrested, illegally tried and condemned to die!
Horrors of crucifixion
Crucifixion entailed more than just being hung on a tree, stake or cross. The first step was normally to scourge the condemned individual.
The scourge was a short whip handled by a professional called the “lictor.” He very skillfully exercised his trade by repeatedly flaying the victim with his whip. The scourge would have a number of thongs that had pieces of bone, stone or metal attached to them to increase its terrible effectiveness. Or it might have a hook at the end of each thong; this was called “the scorpion.” The purpose of scourging was to bring the victim to a point near death.
After scourging, the victim was escorted to the place of execution—in Jesus’ case, it was Golgotha. If the victim was able, he was forced to carry a beam to which he would later be nailed or tied.
The horrible scourging Jesus received left Him so weak He was unable to perform this task, and a passerby named Simon was called into service (Matthew 27:32-33). This “parade” was another method by which humiliation was heaped upon Him.
When they arrived at Golgotha, the executioners probably threw Jesus to the ground while they nailed His hands and feet and set the cross beam on an upright stake. During the crucifixion of Jesus, the pain was excruciating. He was bleeding from His wounds and may have had great difficulty breathing. Observers made fun of Him; the soldiers threw dice to see who would win His robe.
Dr. C. Truman Davis, an ophthalmologist, described the medical aspects of crucifixion in an article titled “The Crucifixion of Jesus: The Passion of Christ From a Medical Point of View,” which was published in Arizona Medicine in March 1965. He writes:
“As He pushes Himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, He places His full weight on the nail through His feet. Again there is the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the metatarsal bones of the feet. At this point, as the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by His arms, the pectoral muscles are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles are unable to act. Air can be drawn into the lungs, but cannot be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically, He is able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in the life-giving oxygen.”
Other authors with medical expertise have also described the agony that an individual experienced in crucifixion.
Jesus was so hated by His enemies that they used the most horrible method of death they had at their disposal to try to eliminate Him. But He endured the shame of the cross; He bore our sins on His own body, so we might be able to enter into eternal life.
And three days later He was resurrected, triumphant over death.
Jesus did not deserve to die
What made the crucifixion of Jesus so extraordinarily horrible was that, of all the people who have walked on the earth, He alone was not guilty of criminal acts or sins of any kind! Jesus Christ died because of sin—but not His own.
When the apostle Paul wrote that “all have sinned” and that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:23; 6:23), was he merely referring to the early Christians? Or was He referring to the sins of all humanity?
Consider the testimony recorded by the apostle John:
- “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2, emphasis added throughout).
- “The Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14).
- “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
- “We know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
Jesus the Messiah was not sentenced to die for any crime against the authorities nor for any sins He committed. As He died, every sin that had ever been committed was thrust upon Him. Every lie, every act of theft, every murder and every other sin that anyone ever committed bore down on Him as He was nailed to the beam of crucifixion.
Jesus Christ’s shed blood has not only made possible the purging of all sins up to that moment, but also the purging of all sins that are truly repented of for all time.
The crucifixion of Jesus and how we should respond
The horror of crucifixion helps make it clearer to us how despicable sin really is. Many methods of execution usually take but a moment of time; crucifixion was deliberately designed to be a prolonged, extremely painful and humiliating death.
And our Savior was willing to offer Himself as a sacrifice for your sins and mine because of the great love that He and our Heavenly Father have for us (John 3:16; 1 John 3:16).
As a matter of fact, the death of Jesus the Christ is the central act of God’s plan for the salvation of humankind, established long before the Genesis account of creation. As the apostle Peter explained, our ransom was paid by the precious blood of Christ:
“And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.
“He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:17-21).
We can be very thankful that Jesus was willing to die. Without the crucifixion of Jesus, all of us would still be convicted sinners and at enmity with God and without any hope for the future. Our godly sorrow and our thankfulness should motivate us to repent, to change and commit to living a life that is pleasing to God and Jesus Christ.
Read more about what the crucifixion of Jesus should motivate us to do in the sections on “Repentance,” “Baptism” and “Christian Conversion.”