The Crucifixion of Jesus
Posted by foryourfaith on March 29, 2010
When Christian proclamation first began, it quickly became clear that the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion was a major problem. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” wrote Paul, a Jewish Christian and an apostle to the Gentiles. A paradox of the Christian message is that what was most offensive became most central, as Paul went on to say, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2). Christian proclamation had to come to terms with the hard fact that Jesus was executed as a criminal by the roman governor of Judea using the extremely harsh form of execution, crucifixion.
There was certainly never any expectation that God’s Messiah would suffer such absolute degradation. There were traditions concerning the suffering of the righteous, but such suffering was what the Messiah would relieve, not what he would experience. Clearly the task of early Christians as they tried to make sense of a crucified Messiah was quite formidable. There was no need to emphasize the gruesome character of crucifixion – that was well known. But there was a need to illuminate the mystery of how such degradation could be the revelation of God.
Each of the four Gospels wrestled with this mystery, interpreting it in two ways. First, they gave emphasis to those details of the story that seem to fulfill patterns or prophecies of Scripture. Especially important here was Psalm 22, a psalm of lament to which all four gospels refer. Second, they cited the words of Jesus from the cross.
The crucifixion narratives of Mark and Matthew are especially dark. Step by step, they show Jesus isolated and ridiculed. After he was condemned, the Roman soldiers scourged Jesus and mocked him as “King of the Jews.” The scourging evidently so weakened him that he could not carry the beam of his cross; the soldiers forced Simon of Cyrene to pick it up.
Jesus, along with two other condemned men, was taken outside Jerusalem to the execution ground called Golgotha, meaning skull. Matthew and Mark say nothing about the crucifixion procedure of nailing Jesus to the cross, nor about the physical suffering, but mention seemingly lesser details: giving Jesus wine mixed with gall (hemlock) or myrrh; the executioners’ casting lots for his clothes. Such details are signposts alluding toe Scriptures and thus suggest that the crucifixion is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. For example, Psalm 22:7 says, “All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads”; so also, Matthew notes that “those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads.” Moreover, when the chief priests mocked him by saying, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now,” the echo Psalm 22:8. Even the bandits crucified with him reviled him. His disciples abandoned him; Jesus was alone.
All of this, however, is but preparation for the most somber mystery of the story. Matthew and Mark tell how at midday darkness covered the land for three hours. Then in the darkness Jesus cried aloud in the only words from the cross that Matthew and Mark record, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34). Abandoned by disciples, enemies, and onlookers, and now, in his word, “forsaken” by God, Jesus descended into the darkest experience that a human being can know.
Jesus’ anguished cry also echoes the first words of Psalm 22, again showing the role that his psalm plays in the narrative. The Gospel writers did not try to tone down the anguish or explain the meaning of Jesus’ cry. Instead they chose to show the consequences. First there was confusion as those around the cross completely misunderstood Jesus’ words. The second was the declaration by the centurion who was executing Jesus. This unknown person became, especially in Mark, a focus of the whole Gospel. It was he who saw how Jesus died and was the first to exclaim, “Truly this man was the son of God.”
The focus of Luke’s narrative was not on Jesus’ anguish, but rather, his serenity and confidence. Luke knows that Jesus understood clearly the divine mystery that was occurring. Just after he was placed on the cross, Jesus prayed: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The executioners acted in ignorance; only Jesus grasped what was happening. A little later, when one of the criminals defended Jesus against the reviling, Jesus promised him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42). Luke was showing that even on the cross, Jesus had full competence to forgive sin and grant eternal blessedness. Death held no threat at all to him. As in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the final words of Jesus are a quotation from Scripture, this time Psalm 31:5, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). Here Luke lets us see the serenity that comes from understanding God’s will and living it to the last moment.
The Gospel of John notes how quickly Jesus died. Like the Passover lamb, his bones were not broken, but his die was pierced after death, and blood and water came forth. John also records three distinct sayings of Jesus from the cross, each of which emphasizes his control of events. In extremis, his love and concern for his mother moved him to care for her future by appointing the “disciple whom he loved” to act as her son (John 19:26). the last two sayings come in quick succession. John shows Jesus’ desire to fulfill the Scriptures, and thus he says “I thirst.” The reference is probably to Psalm 69:21, “For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” Though all the power of Rome is striving to kill him, Jesus is largely unaffected. It is only when that last deed is completed that the moment arrives to utter the words toward which his whole life has been moving; “It is finished.” Then Jesus “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).
Each Gospel has its own voice and contribution. Together they reveal how for the early Christians a grotesque and brutal act of torture and execution became the mystery of God’s love revealed in the world.