As I review the gospel accounts, I am impressed that there is little information concerning the details of crucifixion. We are told about the crucifixion of Christ, but we are not given details in Scripture regarding the ordeal of crucifixion. One would expect maybe more physical description from Luke, a physician – who would no doubt be interested in such information – or from eyewitnesses like the Apostle John. Much of what we know about crucifixion we learn from historical accounts in extra-biblical literature.
This is significant because a lot of preaching about the Cross seems to center on the brutality of Roman crucifixion. Certainly, it was a sadistically brutal form of execution. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has gone a long way to remind modern viewers of the savagery of this kind of death. But while we do not want to detract from the horror of crucifixion, it is wise that we do not go beyond the Biblical report of it.
Why are the details lacking in the gospels? Two reasons come to mind:
First, the New Testament writers saw no need to provide a gory description of crucifixion because it was well known to first century people living under Roman domination. There is literature that speaks of the mass crucifixion of 6000 followers of Spartacus in 71 BC. The crucifixion of Jesus would not have been much different from these.
Second, the most important feature is not the act of crucifixion, but the object of crucifixion. It is not as much about how Jesus died, but about who He was who died. He was the sinless Son of God, the Lamb of God who was sent to take away the sins of the world.
Crucifixion did not kill Jesus. He said that no one could take His life from Him; He would lay it down of His own accord when His hour was come (Jn. 10:18).
When He gave up His spirit, the earth trembled and the Roman guard confessed that “certainly, this was the Son of God.”
Isaiah 53 portrays the offering of the Son as he “poured out His soul unto death.” It is this soul-suffering, this bearing sin and absorbing the wrath of God for sinners that occupies the central place in how we understand the crucifixion.
If Jesus died from the torture of crucifixion, the brutality of Roman executioners, or, as some even suggest, from a “broken heart,” then we surely may feel pity for this one who died in such a manner. But I think that such sentimentality detracts from the core issue of the Cross – His soul was made an offering for sin, that our souls might be saved. He suffered the infinite wrath of a holy God that was justly due to fall upon me. As we sing:
This, the power of the cross:
Christ became sin for us
Took the blame, bore the wrath—
We stand forgiven at the cross.