Kelly and I were married on a Saturday. We were hoping to get married the week earlier, but family schedules didn’t allow it to happen. Consequently, on the Wednesday after our wedding, we needed to be back at work. A short honeymoon. A friend of mine had a farmhouse/cabin in western Virginia that he offered for our few nights together, and we spent our honeymoon in the shadow of the Shenandoah Mountains.
I had yet to discover a passion for studying the War between the States, and I spent our time in Virginia without realizing that we were honeymooning on the site of numerous Civil War skirmishes. Now, we weren’t there to study history, so that’s ok; but in later years, when we returned to the area and after I had spent some time learning about the Civil War, I was surprised at how much the historical background shaped my understanding of the area.
As we explore the Seven Greatest Words of History, the seven last things Jesus spoke as He died, the cross looms large in the background. Spread across the four gospels, these seven sayings all took place while Jesus hung on the cross on Good Friday. It is possible, I suppose, to even read these sayings and not really realize that Jesus is dying here (except, perhaps, “Into Your hands, I commit my spirit”). But, if you really want to understand the thrust of these final sayings of Jesus, the background of His execution is crucial.
As many of you know, crucifixion was a brutal, vicious, cruel way to die. The Romans themselves recognized the inhumanity of the practice by refusing to use it to execute their own citizens. If a Roman citizen was to be executed, he was most frequently beheaded, but not crucified. The Romans used this form of execution specifically to deter similar offenses—it was public, slow, exceedingly painful, and tremendously humiliating.
The physical sufferings of the cross, and specifically what Jesus went through on a bodily level, have been depicted in various ways in recent decades. I have not spoken to anyone who watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ who has not stressed the eye-opening portrayal of Jesus’ physical anguish. From a purely medical standpoint, I would suggest an article published in 1986 in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. William Edwards where he describes the medical effects of crucifixion. It is so educational to read, and yet horrifying to realize that my Lord suffered such. Stretched out and hanging on the cross, a person would need to push up on their feet (straining on that nail) in order to loosen the pressure on the chest to be able to take a breath. Through the pain and the exhaustion, usually over a period of days, the crucified one is unable to push up and slowly suffocates.
However. Let’s be clear on something that often gets lost as we learn more and more about crucifixion—the REAL sufferings of Jesus were not physical, they were spiritual. As brutal and even incomprehensible as were the bodily anguish of Jesus throughout His death, they pale in comparison with the real anguish of the cross—the Son’s punishment by, rejection of, and separation from the Father. As a matter of fact, I have found that some folks can be so overcome by the physical aspects of the cross that they miss the spiritual ones. Because the bodily pain and humiliation of the cross is so visible and perceptible, it is possible to focus only here and to miss the deeper pain, the greater humiliation, of the Holy One bearing our spiritual guilt, our sin, and the suffering that is present there.
And so, as we together explore the last words of Jesus on the cross, His physical sufferings loom large—but His spiritual sufferings are even more dramatic. Allow the backdrop of crucifixion to not only call attention to the bodily pain Jesus went through, but ultimately to see and understand the real cost of the cross—the Righteous One transformed into my sin, into your sin.
This week as we prepare for worship together, read Luke 23:32-43.
1. What do we know of the background of these criminals? What does it mean that we don’t know much at all, yet they are here so prominently in the text?
2. Why do you think the place is called “the Place of the Skull?” What skull? (If you are interested in my speculation, come ask me!)
3. Why does Jesus allow Himself to be mocked as He does?
4. What is the main difference between the two criminals? Why does one act one way, the other act another way?
5. The one criminal asks to be “remembered” when Jesus comes into His kingdom. What do you think he is hoping for?
6. What is behind Jesus’ words about “Today”?
7. Paradise is usually taken by theologians as another word for heaven. Why use this word instead of “heaven?” What does “paradise” imply?