At The Cross: The Brutality of Jesus’ Death
To understand the true value of the forgiveness of my sins, I must understand the true price paid for it.
(This is Part 1 of a two-part message.)
Some 700 years before Jesus’ birth, the prophet Isaiah wrote of God’s promise to send a Messiah and how the chosen one would suffer greatly in fulfilling that promise:
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
the chastisement of our peace was upon him,
and with his stripes we are healed.
(Isaiah 53:5 KJV)
For some time now, I have felt a spiritual urging to research what actually happened at the cross. What exactly did Jesus experience, physically, that led to his death?
Following is an account of what I found. Warning: The descriptions are at times quite graphic.
Having found no cause for executing Jesus, Pilate ordered that he be beaten. Flogging was a routine practice in the Jewish culture. It was intentionally public, the goal being not only physical pain but also humiliation. Pilate was hoping such treatment of Jesus would be sufficient to satisfy an unruly mob demanding his death.
The Roman technique—it was called “scourging”—was far crueler than a traditional Jewish flogging. Jesus was stripped of his clothing and his hands bound to a pole above his head, exposing his back at an angle that would allow maximum contact by the weapon of choice, called a “flagrum.”
This was a whip-like instrument with leather strands about three feet in length. On the strands were pieces of metal that resembled tiny dumbbells.
Jesus was beaten by two soldiers, whose alternating blows would ensure that the beating was continuous. A Jewish flogging could not exceed 39 lashes, but the Roman soldiers were not bound by such limitations. Though the soldiers were instructed not to kill Jesus, they were certainly allowed to bring him close to death.
The lashes were focused on his back, buttocks and upper legs, but the whip-like action of the flagrum would have also caused the straps to wrap over his shoulders and rip into his chest.
The initial blows caused deep bruising and welts, eventually giving over to the tearing of the skin. As the beating continued, the superficial muscles under Jesus’ skin were torn, exposing the underlying musculature which was likewise ravaged.
His body would begin to shake uncontrollably.
The beating would have resulted in what some medical researchers have described as “quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh,” a reference that bears chilling resemblance to Isaiah’s words “with his stripes.”
Jesus’s back would have been flayed to the point of lacerating the deep spinal muscles, sending excruciating pain to his spinal cord and subsequently, his brain.
As the wounds deepened, arterial blood would begin to spurt out of his body in rhythm with his heartbeat. This and the spray from the flagrum would have left the soldiers covered with Jesus’s blood.
He would have been dehydrated from profuse sweating, extremely weak from extensive blood loss and in a near state of shock.
It was merely a prelude to a more horrific end.
Crown of Thorns
The Roman soldiers led Jesus back to his cell, where they taunted him: “All hail, king of the Jews!” They draped a purple robe over him and put a staff in his hand. They topped off their cruel joke by fashioning a crown – it was likely a cap, not a ring as commonly depicted – from the branches of a small, thorny tree.
The soldiers used the crown to not only further their mockery of Jesus, but to further their torture of him. As they slammed the crown onto his head, thorns an inch or more in length instantly penetrated his skin and blood began to flow down his face. The thorns crashed into his skull and perforated nerves, causing explosive and indescribable pain.
The soldiers then struck him repeatedly in the head, driving the thorns deeper into the nerves around his skull and sending what would have felt like electrical shocks throughout his face and ears.
Jesus’ head and face would remain in a state of inflamed sensitivity until his eventual death, such that talking, swallowing and even the slightest breeze could easily trigger excruciating pain.
Jesus was now experiencing traumatic shock, his body on fire with unrelenting pain. In a highly weakened state and vomiting periodically, he could barely walk.
To ready him for execution, the Roman soldiers would need to remove his purple robe. By now his blood had begun to dry, causing his flesh to stick to the material. As they tore the robe from his body, it ripped open his wounds.
The soldiers lifted an unfinished plank of wood weighing 60 to 80 pounds onto his shoulders and secured it to his wrists with rope. This would be the crossbeam for his crucifixion. It is likely that splinters from the wood found their way into his gaping wounds; it is also likely that by now Jesus was too numb to feel them.
To further his humiliation, Jesus was forced to walk in public to Calvary, the place he would be crucified. Several times during this half-mile trek, Jesus, disoriented and near physical collapse, would stumble and fall to the ground.
At the execution site, Roman soldiers secured Jesus’ arms to the wood plank with a hammer and thick, tapered spikes. There is some debate as to whether the spikes were driven into his hands or wrists; regardless of the location, this would have caused intense pain to radiate through Jesus’ arms.
Two Roman soldiers, one on each end of the crossbeam, lifted Jesus off the ground. The full weight of his body now supported by only the spikes in his hands, Jesus was hoisted into the air and the crossbeam set into a notch near the top of the vertical post.
His knees were bent so that his feet would lay flat, and spikes then driven through both feet into the wood. In addition to excruciating pain caused by the spikes, having his knees in a permanently flexed position would cause cramping and painful spasms in Jesus’ calves and thighs.
Whereas scourging caused significant blood loss, crucifixion was relatively bloodless. The most debilitating effect would be the interruption of normal breathing. In order to draw a breath, Jesus had to push up with his feet and arms into a “T” position.
Each time he pushed up, it would press the metal spikes against bone, which has more pain sensors than the skin.
To exhale, he would have to slump into a “Y” position, his hands elevated above his shoulders.
Jesus would have to alternate between “T” and “Y” positions with every breath, relying on increasingly fatigued muscles to lift himself into position to draw air.
Eventually, the muscles in his arms and legs would completely fail and he would slump into a permanent “Y” position. His chest and respiratory muscles would become paralyzed, causing asphyxia.
Jesus endured the cross for an agonizing six hours.
It was common to break the legs of those being crucified, as this made it harder for them to push up for air. The intent was to hasten death. But, in accordance with Scripture (John 19:36), Jesus would suffer no broken bones. On orders, the soldiers returned to the cross to break Jesus’ legs; but, there was no need. He was already dead.
At that point, they pierced his side with a spear.
What actually caused Jesus’ death is not known. Most experts believe it was hypovolemic and traumatic shock; his heart was unable to pump sufficient blood throughout his body.
What Isaiah had written centuries ago had indeed come to pass:
There were many who were appalled at him; his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness. (Isaiah 52:14 NIV)
Jesus’ mutilated body hung limp on the hill, the life now gone from it.
So, what is the point of telling such an exceedingly gruesome account of Jesus’ death?
Well, for me it was necessary that I understand exactly everything Jesus did for me. To understand the true value of the forgiveness of my sins, I must understand the true price paid for it.
Hearing how his body was crushed on my behalf does that. But, it only gets me part way there. This is just the physical; there’s much more to this story, which I will share next.
Until then, let the reality of Jesus’ broken body rest heavy on your heart.