HOW AWFUL IT WAS for the disciples. They watched their cherished Lord, now dressed in His own clothes but still wearing that brutal crown, swaying and lurching His way through the streets of Jerusalem with a heavy crossbeam on His back. His forearms were bound by rope to the crossbeam’s two ends so that if He fell forward, it landed on top of Him and He had to struggle to get up from under it. If He didn’t get up quickly enough, a soldier’s whip would tear mercilessly at His already-shredded skin. The burden, in the end, proved too much for Him, so the soldiers pulled one of His followers out of the crowd—Simon from Cyrene—and forced Him to carry the crossbeam behind Jesus (Luke 23:26). Trudging after the two men were many of Jesus’ followers, possibly including the disciples. Among them was a large group of women (Luke 23:27), one of whom was probably Jesus’ mother Mary. More than a few of these women were wailing at full volume. They were giving voice not only to their own distress, but to the disciples’ distress too.
The sombre procession arrived at Golgotha, a field outside the city of Jerusalem. A gathering of Jesus’ disciples and friends stood watching proceedings from some distance away, probably as a mark of respect for Mary. John, who was Jesus’ closest disciple, also stood near the cross. Gospel-writer Mark tells us succinctly what happened next: ‘And they crucified Him’ (Mark 15:24).
A note about crucifixion
Mark and his peers—Matthew, Luke and John—were writing to people of their own era who were familiar with crucifixion, used routinely across the Roman Empire. They didn’t need to explain the procedure, as their original readers knew how it worked.
Jesus was nailed (quite literally) to a wooden cross: one nail through each of His hands and into the crossbeam He had been carrying; and another single nail through both of His feet and into the vertical beam (to which the crossbeam had first been attached). This would have been done while the cross was lying flat on the ground. To accomplish this, Jesus’ arms would have been stretched out as wide and as high above His head as possible—a process that may have dislocated His shoulders—and His legs would have been bent at approximately forty-five degrees.
Once the cross had been lifted up to the vertical position with Jesus on it, the three points at which His body was affixed to the cross would have taken His weight. This would literally have been ‘excruciating’ (or in Latin, ‘excruciare’—the word invented to describe the pain of crucifixion). He would then have had to work out how best to distribute His weight between His hands and His feet. If He pushed down with His leg muscles, His body would rise up so that He was no longer hanging from His hands—but the pain in His feet would be agonising. When He could stand this pain no longer, He could relax His leg muscles and allow His body to hang down—but then the anguish would shift to His hands. Thus He would have had to alternate between the two positions. As His strength slowly diminished, He would have been forced to put His weight on His hands all the time. This, together with a build-up of blood and serum around His heart and lungs, would have increasingly impeded His breathing. As such, He would have died of asphyxiation. This process sometimes took days, but in Jesus’ case it played out more quickly, possibly because He had been flogged so severely.
The well-practised soldiers set about their deadly task. To the top of the vertical beam they hammered a sign that Pilate had dictated: ‘THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS’ (Matthew 27:37). Even now, the King was wearing His barbed crown. The soldiers stepped back and surveyed their work, the cross and its wretched prey casting a shadow over them. It was nine o’clock in the morning (Mark 15:25).
The Son of God—along with two other condemned men, one either side of Him (Matthew 27:38)—was now languishing on a roughhewn cross in front of a leering, heckling rabble. The bread was broken. The blood of the covenant was flowing. ‘Father, forgive them,’ Jesus prayed loudly, ‘for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34).
The disciples were upset to hear people taunting Jesus from all directions. There was the crowd: ‘He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One’ (Luke 23:35). There were the Jewish leaders: ‘He’s the king of Israel! Let Him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue Him now if He wants Him, for He said, “I am the Son of God”’ (Matthew 27:43). The soldiers were joining in the chorus (Luke 23:36), and so was one of the criminals next to Him. The other criminal, however, defended Jesus and asked Him to ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in paradise’ (Luke 23:39-43). Mercy from the cross for the guilty—and there was yet more mercy to come. Seeing that His mother was soon to be bereaved of her firstborn son, He said to her (referring to John), ‘Woman, here is your son’ (John 19:26-27); and to John, ‘Here is your mother’ (John 19:26-27).
Jesus’ followers, despite their grief, must have been holding on to hope: God might rescue Him, or Jesus might save Himself and put the mockers in their place. Nothing less than a miracle would suffice, for no cross had ever let go of the man pinned to it before killing him. Now is the moment, Jesus. Show everyone who you are! Please, we beg you, don’t suffer anymore! Save yourself and Israel too! The Nazarene was their great hope, their matchless Lord, their nation’s mighty Saviour—yet He was still hanging there, nailed to a cross.
Groaning. Shuddering. Crying. Writhing. Sighing. Arching. Calling. Heaving. Slumping.
Suddenly, darkness. No one knew why; it was midday. Perhaps the disappearance of the sun was a sign? The people fell into awed silence, their taunting of Jesus on hold while they stared uneasily up at the heavens. The disciples were also gazing skyward—in awe, yes, but also in suspense. There was still a grain of hope that Jesus, who had performed miracles in front of their eyes, would perform one more. They waited and pined and ached while the slow torture of their Lord continued, His moans puncturing the bleakness. Eventually, at three o’clock in the afternoon, a definitive movement. Was this it? Jesus bent His back and forced out a heart-rending question that implied no miracle was on offer: ‘MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?’ (Matthew 27:46).
He had been on the cross for six hours. From close up, John could see that He was gaunt, His skin pallid, His wounds enflamed, His hair matted with blood, His body in paroxysms. His pain, it seemed, hadn’t diminished in the least. Now He appeared restless, as if trying to say something. The soldiers craned toward Him. They, with John, heard Him say in a gravelly voice, ‘I am thirsty’ (John 19:28). One of the soldiers soaked a sponge in some wine vinegar, gored it with the end of a long stalk, and passed it up to Him. Jesus allowed the sponge to touch His lips and drew back on it weakly for a few seconds, swallowing reflexively. His breathing was becoming rapid and narrow, and His head was starting to loll. He said softly, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30).
The disciples, still some distance away, must have goggled through their tears at what they saw next. Without warning, Jesus suddenly seemed to find some strength. Drawing breath and stiffening His body against the nails, He cried out, ‘FATHER, INTO YOUR HANDS’—and now John saw Him become slightly breathless and emit a tear—‘I commit My Spirit’ (Luke 23:46). And He bowed His head.
For the disciples, that moment felt like the end. The man who had changed everything had died, and everything that mattered to them had died with Him. Their Messiah, their Lord, their King, their Teacher, their Saviour, their light, their love—gone. He wasn’t breathing anymore; He wasn’t with them anymore. He had left them alone, like sheep without a shepherd.
What were they to do now? Where were they to go? They felt nothing inside and saw nothing ahead. The last flicker of hope had been extinguished.