Crucifixion. It’s an ugly word for an ugly historical reality, a barbaric practice by which people were literally tortured to death just to make a public example of them. One wonders at what point even those directly involved in the practice became numb to the horror.
The gospel writers, as we’ve seen, don’t dwell on the gore. For the sake of our own piety, it’s good for us to remember how deeply Jesus suffered on our behalf, but we should never get stuck there. Good Friday is only “good” because of Easter. For those of a gospel mindset, crucifixion should always point to resurrection.
John tells us that even after Jesus died that day, the barbarism continued. Jesus hung lifeless on the cross, and Sabbath was quickly approaching — a special Sabbath. All the Jews in Jerusalem had their minds on Passover and on their readiness for it.
Their leaders believed that to leave dead bodies dangling overnight would desecrate the land (Deut 21:22-23). Not that Pilate would care, of course. Victims often took days to die, and he probably would have preferred to mock the Jews for as long as possible with the “King of the Jews” sign he had posted on the cross.
The Jewish leaders, therefore, couldn’t count on Pilate to do anything, and they weren’t about to violate the Passover Sabbath themselves. So they went to Pilate with a request regarding Jesus and the two men crucified with him: Break their legs. That way they’ll die more quickly, hopefully before evening. Then take the bodies down.
They didn’t make up the idea. The Romans would often break the legs of crucifixion victims. The act was doubly brutal. To have your legs shattered by a blow from a spear was bad enough. But people dangling from their arms on a cross also found it difficult to breathe; they would use their legs to push themselves upward to catch a breath. The request therefore boiled down to this: Suffocate them quickly. We need to get this over with so we can be free to worship.
Pilate agreed (I imagine, with a sigh of resignation). The soldiers broke the legs of the two criminals on either side of Jesus. At that point, they were still alive, and probably died gasping for air soon after. But there was no need to break Jesus’ legs. He was already dead, a fact which seems to have surprised Pilate (Mark 15:44).
The soldiers couldn’t afford to take it for granted that Jesus was in fact dead; if he had somehow survived, their own lives would have been forfeit. So one of them thrust a spear into Jesus’ side. Various medical explanations have been offered for the flow of blood (probably clotted) and “water” that issued from the open wound. Whatever the truth of any of these, the point is that the soldiers were satisfied that Jesus was really dead.
But that’s only how a news reporter might tell the story. There’s another perspective: the perspective of faith. For a disciple watching such events unfold, it would be difficult indeed to see anything other than the triumph of selfish, brutal regimes over the innocent and the utter destruction of your hopes and dreams.
But wait, John says: things happen for a reason.
More on that in the next post.