How bloody was the death of Christ?
April 15, 2004
In an effort to help us appreciate the suffering Jesus endured in saving us, people sometimes do what the writers of the New Testament don’t do – they go into extremely graphic details about the scourging and crucifixion of Christ. The purpose of such elaboration is almost always to show that Jesus was severely beaten to the point of being near death before He was finally nailed to the cross. As I said, the intent in all of this is noble but the question we need to ask is, “Is this an accurate portrayal of the crucifixion?”
Consider the following lines of evidence:
None of the New Testament writers go into explicit detail concerning the suffering of Jesus prior to the crucifixion. He is flogged and beaten and a crown of thorns is placed on His head. Certainly this is extremely painful and while we know that sometimes people were horrendously beaten prior to crucifixion, we don’t know that this is the case with Jesus.
We do know that when Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body, Pilate is surprised to hear He is dead so soon (Mark 15:44). This is significant because if Pilate didn’t personally witness the flogging of Jesus he at least sees Jesus soon afterwards (John 19:1ff). If Jesus is near death after His flogging, then Pilate shouldn’t be surprised that His death happens so quickly.
Jesus dies after just six hours on the cross (Mark 15:25,33-37). Death on a cross can take hours or days depending on the manner in which a person is crucified (i.e., how their body is positioned on the cross and whether they can breathe in that position), their general health, and the severity of the flogging they receive prior to being crucified. Death is due to a combination of fatigue, exposure and asphyxiation but rarely, if ever, the loss of blood.
The two thieves who are crucified with Jesus also provide us with some insight into the nature of Jesus’ crucifixion. We have no reason to believe that Jesus is crucified in a manner different than they are. Yet after approximately nine hours they are still alive and must have their legs broken to speed their deaths so their bodies can be taken off the cross before the start of the Sabbath. Why then does this not have to also be done with Jesus?
Though He dies the death of a common criminal by being crucified on a cross, there is nothing common about Jesus’ death. The gospels zero in on this uniqueness:
Matthew writes “when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, He gave up His spirit,” (Matthew 27:50).
Luke records, “Jesus called out in a loud voice, ‘Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit,’” (Luke 23:46).
Mark tells us of the centurion’s reaction to watching Jesus die. “ … when the centurion . . . heard His cry and saw how He died, he said, ‘Surely, this man was the Son of God!’” (15:39).
John’s account is even more pointed, “Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, He bowed His head and gave up His spirit,” (19:30).
These passages point out two important and overlooked aspects in regard to the death of Jesus. First of all, they indicate that Jesus is both conscious and in command at the time of His death. He isn’t unconscious or slowly drifting away. He calls out in a loud voice, He bows His head, He gives up His spirit. These are the actions of someone who is control.
Of greater importance is that Jesus gives up His spirit. We need to carefully consider this because it is a point of emphasis in all four accounts. Not only is His life not taken from Him, He chooses the moment in which it will be given. Jesus is strong, in control, and chooses the moment of His departure. What is the significance of this?
In John 10:17-18 Jesus says:
“The reason My Father loves Me is that I lay down My life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from My Father.’”
Jesus claims in this passage to have control over both His life and His death. No one, He says, can take His life. A cursory look at John’s gospel reveals numerous occasions when the opponents of Jesus seek to take His life (5:18,7:1,19,25,8:37,40,11:47-53). Their attempts are all unsuccessful. Why? The answer is simple: Jesus is unwilling to give His life up on any of those occasions and since He alone has the power to lay His life down, His death isn’t going to happen apart from His choosing.
At Golgotha, in accordance with His Father’s will, Christ chooses to give His life where He pays the price for our sins (Jn. 19:30). Yet even at the cross, He is in total control and chooses the moment of His death. This is what impresses the centurion who has undoubtedly witnessed many deaths from crucifixion. Anyone suffering the torturous death of crucifixion would wish for such power but only Jesus possesses it. This is why the centurion says, “Surely, this man was the Son of God,” (Mark 15:39).
Jesus’ ability to choose the moment of His departure from this world is a fulfillment of His claim and a clear sign of His deity. We need to treat it as such. The portrait of a barely conscious Jesus bleeding out on the cross undermines this claim. Similarly, it is misguided to look for the suffering of Jesus primarily in the physical aspects of the crucifixion. Not only do the writers of the gospels not emphasize this but a careful sifting of their testimony will cultivate the recognition and appreciation that the ultimate suffering of the cross was not physical but spiritual. The greatest anguish Jesus experiences is when He suffers what He has never known from all eternity – separation from His Father (Matt. 27:46). The land is shrouded in darkness as God makes “Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God,” (2 Cor. 5:21). This is the death He tastes for us (Heb. 2:9), for although we will all experience physical death one day when our spirit separates from our body, we will not be separated from God because Jesus took our place in His suffering on the cross.
In conclusion, while the physical aspects of the cross should never be ignored or minimized, neither should they be embellished or presented as the most significant aspect of the crucifixion. History is full of people who gave their physical lives for others but knows only One who was separated from God on behalf of all others. That is what makes the cross the nexus of history. May we always treat it that way.
Bruce Green preaches for the church in Cabot, Ark., where he lives with his wife, Janice, and their three children.