A number of individuals have through the years mentioned hearing brother Doug Leatherman preach on the crucifixion of Jesus. It made quite an impression on all of them. A request was made to put his sermon into manuscript form. Upon receipt of the writings, I read them and was moved by the simple yet graphic discussions about Jesus's death upon the cross. The reason for putting this into print is to send it to many parts of the world to help others to a better understanding of what Jesus has done for each of us individually. Jesus did what no one else could do for you and me.
Douglas Leatherman, M.D. is well qualified to write about the crucifixion of Jesus. He is an avid student of the Word of God. He is a medical doctor who was widely respected during his time of practice. He has served the church of Christ in many ways in a number of congregations. He has been a teacher, a deacon, has preached on a number of occasions and has been a counselor for numerous people. He is considered to be an excellent instructor in the Word.
Due to health problems Doug is no longer active in his medical practice but remains active in the work of the church. Doug and Peggy, his wife, now reside in Enid, Oklahoma. They have a son and two daughters along with several grandchildren. While health problems have not allowed them to move at the same pace in life, it has not dampened their desire to remain true to the Word of God and help reach the lost.
In this lesson a discussion of some of the physical aspects of the passion, or suffering, of Jesus Christ will be explored. We shall follow Him from Gethsemane through His trial and His scourging to His last hours on the cross.This material is an accumulation from various books, papers and commentaries over the past several years. I realized that I had taken the crucifixion more or less for granted all these years--that I had grown callous to its horror by an easy familiarity with the grim details and formed a distant friendship with Him who gave His all for my sins. It finally occurred to me as a physician that I did not know or even presume the actual immediate cause of his death.
The gospel writers do not help too much on this point, because crucifixion and scourging were so common during their lifetime that they undoubtedly considered a detailed description to be totally superfluous; so we merely have the concise words of the evangelist Matthew, "Pilate having scourged Jesus, delivered Him to them to be crucified .. and they crucified Him." (Matt 27)
Dr. Pierre Barbet, a surgeon, did extensive research on this - both on a historical and experimental basis. However, he relates to too many relics and questionable artifacts in which he postulates the cause of death. The infinite spiritual suffering of the Incarnate God in atonement for the sins of fallen men I have no competence to discuss. However, the psychological and anatomical aspects of our Lord's suffering we can explore in some detail. That is, what did the body of Jesus of Nazareth actually endure during those hours of torture?
Crucifixion is the execution of a person by fixation to a cross. It apparently was first known by the Persians. Alexander and his generals brought it back to the Mediterranean world--to Egypt and Carthage. The Romans apparently learned the practice there and (as with most everything the Romans did) rapidly developed a high degree of efficiency and skill in carrying it out. A number of Roman authors (Livy, Tacitus, Cicero) comment on it. Many innovations and modifications are described in ancient literature.
The Christian or Latin cross as known today can only be traced back to the fifth century A.D.--and that an ivory cross in a London museum. Early Christians abhorred the cross and refused to write or describe it. The most common form used was the "T" or Tau cross, which was comprised only of two parts: the stipes, an upright pole or beam, and the patibulum, or cross armpiece. This was the common form used at the time of Christ. It was efficient, quick, and deadly. There is overwhelming evidence in recent archaeological findings that this was the most common type used.
The upright post (stipes) or beam was permanently fixed in the ground with a notch at the top into which the patibulum or crossbar could be slipped without trouble. This crossbar would weigh from one hundred to one hundred and twenty pounds and the condemned man was made to carry this to the site of execution. It was during the Dark Ages that the cross was depicted in paintings, giving us the impression that Christ carried the entire cross.
These same painters also placed the nails in the hands, again a misconception, for they would easily strip out through the fingers. If we turn to the early scholars of both modern and ancient anatomy, we always find that the forearm is included in the anatomy of the hand. This does not refute the saying of Jesus to Thomas, "Behold, my hands."
A titulus, or small sign, stating the victim's crime was usually carried in front of the procession and later nailed to the top of the cross; this would give it somewhat the characteristic form of the Christian or Latin cross.
The initial agony and suffering began in the garden of Gethsemane when Christ knew His time had come. Luke tells us, "And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22:44).
Many critics have questioned this; however, a brief search into medical literature reveals a condition known as hematodrosis or bloody sweat. It occurs in the sweat glands of the body when a person is under extreme physical and mental anguish. This process of bloody sweat started the weakening and possible shock of the physical body of our Savior.
We move rapidly through the betrayal and arrest. It must be stressed again that important portions of the suffering of Christ are missing from the Gospels. This may be frustrating but in order to adhere to our purpose of discussing only the purely physical aspects of the suffering, it is necessary.
After the arrest in the middle of the night, Jesus had six trials--all containing unjust and false accusations. When He was brought before the Sanhedrin and Caiaphas the high priest, He suffered the first physical trauma. They mocked Him, spat on Him and struck Him in the face. In the morning, Jesus, battered, bruised, dehydrated and exhausted from a sleepless night, is taken to the Fortress Antonia (part of which remains today). Here Pilate examines Him and passes the responsibility to Herod Antipas. At the hand of Herod, He again apparently suffered physical mistreatment, then was returned to Pilate. It was then that Pilate ordered Barabbas released and condemned Christ to scourging and crucifixion.
There is much disagreement among the authorities as to the scourging. This was a Roman , not a Jewish, custom. The hands were tied high to a tree or post. A whip was made of a short wood handle and heavy leather straps bearing usually the sharp bones of sheep knuckles or lead balls on the ends. The Jews forbade more than forty lashes (thirty nine was the maximum allowed), but the Romans did not have this limit. The scourging was usually carried out by a Roman soldier. The whip was brought down upon the bare back, cutting the skin first; then as the beating progressed, the muscles were laid bare, bruised and bleeding with marked loss of blood. In a significant number of instances this was enough to kill a man. Ribs were broken, nerves exposed. Again and again, down came the whip until either death or unconsciousness occurred. Both venous and arterial bleeding occurred. Large deep, dark, bruised surfaces began to appear. Finally the skin of the back is hanging in long shreds. The whole area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue.
Now the half-fainting Jesus is untied and slumps to the pavement wet in His own blood. The Roman solders see great jest in this provincial Jew claiming to be a king. They throw a robe across His bleeding shoulders and place a reed in His right hand and a crown of thorns is pressed upon His head. This crown is made up of flexible branches covered with long thorns (commonly used as firewood). Again there is copious bleeding because the scalp is one of the most vascular areas of the body. After mocking Him and striking Him across the head, driving the thorns deeper into the scalp, more blood is lost. Finally tiring of their sadistic sport, the robe is torn from His back. The adherent clots of blood and scrum cling to the robe and the back wounds are opened up again to massive bleeding and excruciating pain, almost as if He were being whipped again.
In deference to Jewish custom, the Romans return His garments. The heavy patibulum is tied across His bleeding shoulders. The procession of Christ, Roman soldiers and the women begin the slow journey to the place of the stipes. Together with the exhaustion, scourging, blood loss and deep agony, His attempt to walk erect fails and He stumbles, awakening the painful back. The rough wood scrapes across the exposed flesh. He tries to rise but human muscles have been pushed beyond their endurance. The centurion, anxious to get on with the execution, selects a North African, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross. Jesus follows, still bleeding, sweating and, in all probability, in cold, clammy shock, to the place of Golgotha. Upon arrival, Jesus is then thrown to the ground on His bleeding back and quickly the centurion hammers a large spike in the wrist of one arm, then the other. The arms are not stretched taut but are left sagging to allow flexion and movement. The patibulum or crossbar is then attached to the top of the stipes. Quickly the feet are nailed, the left then the right, with the same size large crude nail. They are nailed through the arch of the foot leaving the knees in a flexed position. The title "King of the Jews" is nailed to the top of the cross.
With the knees flexed, toes downward, the full pressure of the body is placed on the nerves of the feet. When this can be tolerated no more, the body sags to where the entire body weight is borne by the nails through the forearm. This produces excruciating pain on the median and ulnar nerves of the hand until this can be tolerated no more. Again the knees are straightened as much as possible. This process of seesawing up and down further weakens and exhausts the body.
At this point, great waves of cramps sweep over the entire body, the arms fatigue, then the legs fatigue. With these cramps comes the inability to push upward. Hanging by His arms, the pectoral muscles are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles are unable to act. Air can be drawn into the lungs but cannot be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and bloodstream and the cramps partially subside.
Spasmodically, He is able to push himself upward to exhale and bring in the life-giving oxygen. It is most likely that during this time He utters the seven short sentences which are recorded. The first is uttered while looking down at the Roman soldiers throwing dice for his seamless garment: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." The second is to the penitent thief: "Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise." Then looking at the terrified and grief-stricken John, he said: "Behold, thy mother," and looking to Mary, His mother: "Woman, behold thy son." The fourth cry is from the beginning of Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
He has endured hours of limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain as tissues are tom or stretched from the nail wounds. His lacerated back yields to unrelenting pain as He plies up and down on the cross of rough timber. Then another agony begins, a deep crushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium (a sac around the heart) slowly fills with fluid due to the extreme trauma and shock. The heart becomes compressed by the fluid. Let us remember again Psalm 22:14: "I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels."
It is now almost over. Loss of tissue fluid has reached a critical level, the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the vital tissues. The tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. The markedly dehydrated tissues send their stimuli to the brain--Jesus gasps His fifth cry, "I thirst." Let us remember another verse from the prophets in Psalm 22:15; "My strength is dried up like a potsherd and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws and thou hast brought me into the dust of death."
A sponge soaked in posca, the cheap, sour vinegar wine which is the staple drink of the Roman legionnaire, is lifted up to His lips. He apparently doesn't take any of the liquid. The body of Jesus now is in extremis and He can feel the chill of death creeping through his tissues. This realization brings out His sixth words, probably little more than a tortured whisper, "It is finished." His mission of atonement has been completed. Finally, He can allow His body to die. With one last surge of strength, He once again presses His torn feet against the nail and straightens His legs, takes a deeper breath and utters His seventh and last recorded cry: "Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit."
In order not to profane the Sabbath, the Jews asked that the condemned man be removed from the cross. The Romans usually left the bodies on the cross to rot. The common method of ending a crucifixion was fracturing--the breaking of the bones of the legs--preventing the victim from raising himself to breathe. The victim then died from suffocation.
Remember God's most precious gift to man was His only begotten son. His saving power is free if we but obey his commands. Do we understand just how deep and all encompassing this love is? I think not; if it were so, then all mankind would be brothers and love would abound everywhere.
Solomon said, "The conclusion, when all has been heard is ... fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Jesus, whose crucifixion we have just reviewed, said: "Come to Me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:28).