Friday, April 06, 2012

The Crucifixion

By the time the guards arrived at Annas house it was after midnight. Annas had been the high priest and still had a lot of power in Jerusalem but his son-in-law Caiaphas was now technically the man in chargeThey were about to put Jesus on trial then and there but they realized that although most people viewed Annas as the High Priest the one who had the real authority to judge Jesus would be Caiaphas so right there in the middle of the night they marched Jesus off to Caiaphas' house. Trying Jesus in the middle of the night was unlawful for the High Council to do for two reasons. First of all, under Jewish law, the High Council wasn't allowed to meet at night and secondly Passover began at sunset and under Jewish law, all feast days were considered to be Sabbath Days so Jesus couldn't be tried on a sabbath day. This didn't stop the High Council however because they knew that Jesus was loved by the people and if they tried him during the day the people would never allow it. They had to do it at night when no one else was around.

The Great Council (also called the Sanhedrin) had been planning this event for some time and they had several false witnesses lined up to testify against Jesus during the trial. They also rounded up as many malcontents as they could so they could have a mob of people present to call for Jesus' death.

John and Peter had followed the guards when they took Jesus but the rest of the apostles hadn't so they were the only two apostles present. They were surrounded by people who were not friends of Jesus so they kept their identity secret. At the palace of Caiaphas, the apostle John knew one of the servants and he managed to get himself and Peter into the courtyard. A crowd of people were starting to gather there expecting the arrival of Jesus and several of the temple guards were there as well. A portion of Caiaphas' house, or more accurately palace, was set apart for administering justice and also contained a pit where prisoners awaiting trial could be kept and a scourging room where justice could be handed out as required. 

Peter and John had been out in the courtyard but when Jesus was brought into the room where the trial was to be held they left the courtyard to enter the room. A woman stopped Peter and looking at him she thought she recognized him. She asked him if he wasn't one of Jesus' followers and Peter immediately denied it saying, "I am not!"

Being in the room where Jesus was being tried finally wore on Peter who was becoming very nervous and he went back out into the court yard. The night was cold and a fire was going to keep the people warm. As Peter stood by the fire to keep warm another man also standing by the fire said to him. From your accent it sounds like you're from Galilee, aren't you one of Jesus followers? Peter again denied knowing Jesus saying, "Of a truth, I am not!"

Things weren't going well for the Sanhedrin at Jesus' trial. While they had many witnesses they told conflicting stories and under Jewish law, if you were going to hand down the death sentence you had to have at least two witnesses and three was better. They were having a hard time finding two who would agree. 

Finally one of the witnesses told how Jesus had said that he would destroy the temple that had been made with hands and then in three days he would rebuild the temple without hands. This of course was blasphemy since only a God could do that. 

They now had one witness and if they could find a second witness then it would be enough. A second man was found who corroborated the story of the first man and Jesus was then sentenced to death. Hearing the sentence, those in the courtyard began to taunt Jesus. Everyone present was friendly to the Sanhedrin (with the obvious exception of Peter and John) and they spit on him and blindfolded him and then punched him laughing and telling him that if he was a prophet then he should tell them who it was that hit him. 

As the commotion in the room where the trial was being held grew, Peter worked his way back to the door to try and get a better idea of what was going on. As he did so one of the temple guards came to him and said he thought he recognized him. The guard was actually related to the guard who's ear had been cut off and he sure thought Peter looked familiar, wasn't he one of those who had been there in Gethsemane? Peter then became angry and adamantly denied knowing Jesus and as soon as the words left his mouth the cock crowed. Hearing the cock crowing reminded Peter of what Jesus had said only a few hours before and he left the palace of Caiaphas and wept bitterly. 

I think all too often we are quick to call Peter a coward because of this denial but we know that isn't true. Just a few hours before he was willing to take on the entire temple guard single handedly which would have surely led to his death. And then when all of the apostles abandoned Jesus only Peter and John followed him into Jerusalem. I like to think that perhaps Peters denial of knowledge of Jesus may have been more motivated by a desire to avoid conflict. Several times throughout Jesus ministry he had been chastised by Jesus for acting before thinking the most recent admonishment happening that same night when he drew his sword against the guard. Jesus had told him that he who uses the sword will die by the sword. Perhaps Peter wept more due to the realization that Jesus was going to allow himself to be killed that night. 
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The grand council now had their man and were able to convict him of blasphemy which under Jewish law carried the death penalty but now they had another problem. While the Romans allowed Judea to rule themselves they held the death penalty for themselves. They were the only ones who could sentence a man to die and the Sanhedrin knew that Romans with their many and confusing gods would find the concept of blasphemy amusing. They finally decided to accuse Jesus of treason, a charge that the Romans would definitely take seriously. 

In order to get the death sentence Jesus was then taken to the Romans and Pilate was the Governor in charge of Judea.  At the Roman Praetorium a large crowd had gathered. This would have been very unusual for this early in the morning and the crowd was very angry and hostile towards Jesus. This too would be surprising in light of the royal welcome Jesus had received just a few days earlier as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. A comment made by Matthew suggests that the Sanhedrin had been rounding up a crowd of Jews from the dregs of society. They wanted to put on a show for Pilate making it look like the people were against Jesus. It was also around this time that Judas realized his great mistake. While we don't know why he did what he did it appears obvious that he didn't think Jesus would be killed. Once Judas realized that Jesus was to be put to death, he returned to the grand council and tried to return the money he had been paid. They refused to take it so Judas left it behind. They couldn't put the money back in the Treasury because it was now blood money (seems odd don't you think? They could pay blood money but not receive it.). When Judas left without the silver the Jewish leaders decided that they would use the money to buy land to be used as a cemetery for poor people. 


By the time Jesus arrived at the Praetorium where Pontius Pilate was, the courtyard was filled with the low life from Jewish society. Only the earliest of the common people were rising as the sun wasn't even completely up yet. The Sanhedrin refused to enter the home of a Gentile as this would defile them so the trial had to be held outside. Pilate quickly realized that this man was no threat to the Roman empire and told the Grand council that he found no fault in him. The crowd went wild demanding that Jesus be put to death. To make matters worse Pilate's wife told him that he should have nothing to do with this man. She had dreamed about him and she knew that he was a just man. At some point Pilate heard someone say that Jesus was from Galilee. He thought sure this was his way out. Galilee was not in his jurisdiction but rather in Herod's jurisdiction. As it happened Herod was in town due to the Passover feast so Pilate told his soldiers to take Jesus to Herod. 

During all of this Jesus never spoke a word. Herod was thrilled to see Jesus. He'd heard of him and had always wanted to meet him. He too found no fault with Jesus and when the Grand Council told him that he claimed to be a King, Herod thought that was quite funny. He found a beautiful robe and put it on Jesus. The Grand Council brought Jesus back to Pilate. This time when Pilate asked Jesus if he was the King of the Jews he told him that his Kingdom was not of this world. It bothered Pilate that he claimed to be a king at all.

Still looking for a way out of putting Jesus to death he came up with another idea. Traditionally the Romans would release a prisoner during the Passover feast. Pilate was sure that if he gave the crowd a choice between a murderer named Barabbas or Jesus they would surely pick Jesus but to his surprise the crowd chose to release the murderer and to crucify Jesus.

Pilate really didn't want to put Jesus to death so he finally decided that perhaps if he scourged Jesus then that may pacify the angry crowd. Jesus had still not been convicted of any crime but off to be scourged he went. The Romans had perfected the art of scourging to a "T". Just a leather thong would rarely break the skin no matter how hard you whipped a man but if you braided three strands of leather into a single strand with little bits of bone and metal in the strands of leather then even a mild lashing would tear ones flesh. 

Even as the Temple Guards had great fun mocking Jesus as a prophet, the Roman soldiers had great fun mocking Jesus as a King. They put a reed in his hand and pretended it was a scepter. They made a crown out of thorns and put it on his head. When Jesus was returned to Pilate scourged and wearing the crown of thorns and still dressed in the royal rob he led him out onto the balcony and presented him to the crowd. Pointing to Jesus he declared, "Behold the Man!" 

The crowd, led by the Sanhedrin began to cry out, "crucify him, crucify him". In frustration Pilate turned to Jesus and said, "from whence do you come?". When Jesus still refused to answer he again angrily asked him why he wouldn't talk to him, "don't you realize that I have the power to release you or to crucify you?" he said. Jesus then responded saying, "you could have no power over me at all if it weren't given you from above." This really shook Pilate and surely he was remembering the dream that his wife had told him about. 

He tried again to release Jesus as was customary for the passover but the Sanhedrin insisted that he release Barabbas. Pilate then asked what they wanted him to do with Jesus and they cried out again, "Crucify Him!"

"You would have me crucify your King?" Pilate asked. And they responded that they had no king but Caesar. 

Finally someone yelled out that if he let Jesus go then he was no friend of Caesars. That wording was no accident. The local Governors were often referred to as a "friend of Caesar". When Pilate heard this he resigned himself. He wasn't in good standing with Caesar because of earlier mistakes he had made with the Jews. He couldn't afford another one. Pilate ordered a bowl of water and a towel and washed his hands of the whole affair. After washing his hands he raised them to the crowd; in particular the members fo the Sanhedrin and declared that he was innocent of the blood of this man. And then Pilate sentenced our Lord to be crucified. 

Washing ones hands to absolve themselves of a sin was actually a Jewish law and when Pilate chose to do this it suggests that he was aware of the Jewish custom and he did it deliberately so they would understand the significance of it. 
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A Roman crucifixion is one of the more cruel methods devised to kill a man. It often took several days for a man to die on the cross and to enhance the effect crucifixions were usually performed along side a major road so as to be witnessed by as many people as possible. The crucifixion of our Lord was to take place at Golgotha. The vertical pole of the cross was normally planted permanently in the ground and the cross beam was carried by the condemned man. The cross beam would be laid across the condemned mans shoulders and his outstretched arms were tied to the beam. The beam had to be thick enough to take the nails and to support the weight of the prisoner. This meant that the beam usually weighed well over a hundred pounds. 

By the time the cross was laid upon Jesus's shoulders and he began his walk to Golgotha word of Christs sentence had spread. A very large and solemn crowd gathered along the road. This was a very different crowd than what had filled the Praetorium a few hours earlier. These people, the common people, were in shock. They must have been very confused. While those close to Jesus surely realized that Jesus was not going to use his power to save himself, most of the people who had witnessed his many miracles must have been waiting for him to save himself and when he didn't they were probably quite baffled. The Messiah they were waiting for was supposed to come in his glory and free the Jewish people. 


By this time Jesus was extremely weak. He'd been up all night long, endured the indescribable suffering in Gethsemane, been subjected to hours of abuse and most recently the horrific scourging at the hands of the Roman soldiers. It had taken it's toll and together with the loss of a lot of blood the burden of the cross was too much for him to bear. A man from Cyrene who'd been watching the events from the side of the road was forced to carry Christs cross for him.

The crowd included several women who were crying for him. This went on for some time and at one point Jesus stopped and turning to the woman said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold the days are coming, in the which they shall say, "Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.""

Golgotha is thought to be just outside the city walls north of Jerusalem. Most likely it was at the foot of a hill beside the roadway and not on top of the hill as is so often depicted in paintings. Another common legend that is likely incorrect is the cross that was used. While the Romans had many different crosses, the one that was most commonly used in Judea at the time of Christ was called a Tau cross after the Greek letter Tau which is equivalent to our letter "T". It was named this because that describes what it looked like. The cross beam that Jesus had carried to Golgotha with him would be nailed to the top of the post so that it could easily bear his weight. With the cross beam on the top of the pole it would look just like the letter "T".

The cross beam was laid on the ground and Jesus was laid on top of it. At first a nail was driven through the palm of his hand and then, to prevent the first nail from tearing though the flesh of his hand a second nail was driven through his wrist. Care had to be taken not to hit a major artery since this would allow the condemn man to bleed to death quickly and that would have been far too merciful. Once Jesus was nailed to the beam two solders lifted it up to the top of the pole where it was nailed in place. Jesus feet would then have been nailed to the pole. Most likely a single nail was used and driven through both feet. It was also common to provide a crude seat on the pole for the victim to sit on. 

Jesus was offered a drink of vinegar which was actually to help deaden the pain. When Jesus realized what it was, he refused to drink it. Apparently he wanted to face this ordeal with all of his faculties fully alert. At one point, as the crucifixion was taking place Jesus looked up towards Heaven and cried out, "Father! Forgive them for they know not what they do."

Jesus had worn the robe that had been given him to the site of the crucifixion but before he was nailed to the cross he was stripped of all of his outer clothing. As was tradition, the soldiers performing the crucifixion got to keep it. They drew lots to decide who got to keep what. 

All crucifixions had a title board at the top of the cross that gave the name of the criminal and the crime for which he was being crucified. Just to stick it to the Sanhedrin, Pilate had very specifically directed the Jesus' title board to read "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" written in Greek, Hebrew and Latin. This incensed the Sanhedrin and they insisted that it be changed to read that he "claimed" to be King of the Jews. Of course it was not changed. 

Most of the crowd who had watched the procession had dissipated by now and it was a strange group of people who remained. There were the Romans who carried out the crucifixion, some members of the Sanhedrin who had instigated it and then there were his apostles and friends including Mary his mother. Some of the Sanhedrin mocked Jesus telling him that if he was truly the Messiah then he should save himself from the cross and then they would believe him. Finally they too drifted off. 

Two other prisoners had been crucified along with Jesus that morning, one on either side of him. No sooner had the mocking from the Sanhedrin ended when one of the prisoners began mocking him as well. "Art thou the Christ?" he said. "If you are save yourself and us." The other criminal however came to Christs defense and speaking to the other criminal he told him to leave Jesus alone. They were all going to die that day but at least they deserved what they got, Jesus on the other hand had "done nothing amiss." He then asked Jesus if he would remember him when he came into his Kingdom. Jesus responded by saying, " Verily I say unto you, on this day, you shall be with me in paradise."

It was still the middle of the day when the sky's went dark. Members of the Sanhedrin, incensed over the sign declaring Jesus the King of the Jews went to Pilate insisting that he change it. He flatly refused and dismissed them. They then reminded Pilate that they couldn't allow a prisoner to die on the sabbath which began at sunset. Pilate must have found it amusing that they could execute an innocent man but just don't let him die on the sabbath. Even so he issued an order to make sure the prisoners all died before sunset. As I said earlier, it can take a man days to die on the cross. When death finally does come it is actually due to suffocation. If the prisoners body hangs limp on the cross he can't breathe so in order to breathe he must alternately pull himself up with his arms or push himself up with his legs. If he is lucky enough to have a little seat he can use that to prolong the inevitable. Finally when he has no more strength, his arms and legs give out and he hangs down and suffocates. If it is necessary to hasten a prisoners death then it was common to break his legs thereby preventing him from supporting his body with his legs. It is then usually just a few hours before he will die.

Not long after the Sanhedrin left Pilate another member of the great council called upon him. His name was Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a supporter of Jesus and so was probably not too popular in the Sanhedrin and he had come to Pilate to ask for permission to take Jesus body and bury him in his own tomb. A tomb that had never been used. Pilate was probably happy to have one less problem to deal with.


Meanwhile, Jesus surrounded by the Roman soldiers and his friends finally spoke and called John and his mother Mary to him. To give his mother the highest honor he could he called her "Woman" and then referring to John he said, "behold your son". And then referring to his mother he spoke to John and said, "behold they mother!". In this manner he asked John to care for Mary as if she were his own mother and that is precisely what he did. From that day forward Mary moved in with John and he cared for her the remainder of her days. 

Several hours later Jesus became restless on the cross and finally he spoke again. Looking towards the heavens he called out, "My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?" Up until this point Jesus had received constant support from his Heavenly Father through the Holy Spirit. Now, for the first time God had withdrawn his spirit and Jesus was required to bear this burden on his own. It must have been quite alarming for him. Not long after this Jesus spoke again and said, "I thirst". The sponge, soaked in vinegar was once again raised to his mouth on the end of a reed. This time he did drink from it. A little while later Jesus spoke one more time. Again looking to the heavens he said, "Father. Into thy hands, I commend my spirit." and then finally, "It is finished."
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As Jesus' body hung limp on the cross the Roman soldiers following Pilates orders arrived to break the legs of the prisoners. One of the soldiers picked up the club used for this task and unceremoniously broke the legs of the two thieves but when he came to Jesus he found him already dead. Jesus had only been on the cross for a few hours so this was incredulous. No one died that quickly in a crucifixion. Just to be sure, he drew his sword and thrust it into Jesus' side. This act fulfilled two prophecies made of his death that, "a bone of him shall not be broken." and "They shall look on him whom they pierced."


Suddenly there was a massive earthquake that shook the entire region and as the earthquake subsided a violent storm lit up the already black sky with tremendous lightning and ear piercing thunder. The soldiers then looked upon Christ's body that had finally found peace and whispered, "Truly, this man was the Son of God."

There wasn't time remaining in the day to give Jesus a proper burial before the beginning of the Sabbath at sunset. They prepared his body as best the could in the few remaining hours and then hurried back to Bethany where they were likely staying with Mary and Martha. They must have been eternally grateful to Joseph of Arimethea for offering his tomb.



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