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Death of Christ
DEATH OF CHRIST. Thewriters had an absorbing interest in the death of Christ. This interest is principally interpretive; they were more concerned with the meaning of the event than with the circumstances that made up the event. Yet it is entirely misleading to suggest, as some moderns have done, that the faith of the apostolic Christians was indifferent to the historical reporting of the facts as they actually happened. The theology of the cross, first elaborated by Paul, is by no means independent of the events recorded in the narratives of the gospels. The death of Christ is both a fact and a doctrine; the two are inextricably bound together in the NT.
As the doctrinal aspects of Christ’s death are discussed in another place (see Atonement, Propitiation, Expiation), more attention shall be given in this article to the historical circumstances surrounding this event.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he determined to know nothing among them “except
When Jesus first introduced the subject of His death (
His arrival at Jerusalem began the period known as Passion Week. (“Passion” is a term used in ecclesiastical lit. to describe the sufferings of the Lord, particularly the agony of Gethsemane and the cruel treatment by the Rom. soldiers who finally crucified Him.) Though He entered the city in triumph (
In reporting this last meal with the disciples, the gospel writers emphasize not so much the Passover feast as such, but rather Jesus’ unique handling of the bread and wine during and after the meal. We read, “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks ne gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (
Because He was soon to die, Jesus interpreted His death to His disciples. Here is illustrated how fact and meaning are united in the New Testament view of Christ’s death. When they had finished eating, they sang a hymn (the paschal hymns,
The following scene, in the Garden of Gethsemane, is so steeped in pathos that it has stirred Christians through the centuries, inspiring innumerable masterpieces of art and poetry. In these familiar environs, Jesus retreated with three of His closest disciples to pray. Though their eyes were heavy with sleep, the Lord was in an agony of spirit that seems to surpass in sheer intensity anything that He suffered subsequently. As He prayed that He might be delivered—“Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me”—He began to sweat great drops of blood (
Having surmounted this crisis, with the help of angelic comforters, the Lord rejoined His disciples as Judas appeared with a band of Temple guards to apprehend Him. The Master was identified by a kiss. (The verb bears a prefix which denotes affectionate kissing; Judas kissed Him repeatedly, a detail that underscores the perfidiousness of his act.) Without resistance, Jesus gave Himself to His captors, though remonstrating with them that they should arm themselves as if they sought a dangerous criminal. Though Peter made a quixotic defense by striking off an ear of the high priest’s servant with his sword (Jesus cured him with a touch), the entire company of the disciples soon dispersed into the night, leaving Jesus to His fate (
In reporting the arrest, John’s gospel includes a detail not found in the synoptics, that at the first encounter Jesus’ would-be captors fell backward on the ground (
Apprehended, Jesus was brought to the palace of the former high priest Annas, who vainly tried to extract a confession from Him, and then sent Him to Caiaphas, the high priest. Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin, hastily assembled at daybreak (
After many vile insults to His person, Jesus was led to Pilate’s residence to obtain legal sanction of the death sentence. The Messianic issue appeared again, only now with a political twist; Jesus was accused of sedition. But Pilate showed himself reluctant to be involved, and having learned the defendant was from Galilee, engaged in the delaying tactic of sending Jesus off to Herod the king, who happened to be in Jerusalem during the Passover season. Herod received Jesus with overweening curiosity, having heard of His miracles; but when Jesus refused to break His silence, Herod sent him back to Pilate, having mocked Him with the raiment of royalty (
As Jesus was led out of the city of Golgotha where He was to be crucified, a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, was pressed into the service of bearing His cross. Meanwhile Jesus, in somber accents that anticipated the imminent desolation of Jerusalem, bade the disconsolate women to weep for themselves and their nation rather than for Him (
Up to this point, the crucifixion was typically Roman—scourging, mocking, the garments becoming the spoil of the soldiers, the place of execution on an elevated spot outside the city, and the superscription over the head of the accused. At this point is introduced a concern to remove the body before sundown, a strictly Jewish matter; the Jews did not want the bodies on the cross during the Sabbath. They petitioned Pilate to hasten the death of the victims so that the bodies could be removed before sundown. The order was given, but they did not break Jesus’ legs because He was already dead. A soldier, however, plunged his spear into Jesus’ side—to make sure He was dead?—and water mingled with blood poured from the wound (
The report of the crucifixion in the gospels is characterized by reserve and sobriety, fitting for such an awful and solemn tragedy. It is assumed that the readers were familiar with the details. Inasmuch as crucifixion is unknown in the modern world, and because the event of Jesus’ death has been idealized by the poetry and art of the centuries, some account perhaps should be given of the stark details.
Crucifixion appears to have been first used by the Persians as a form of execution, then by
The rapidity with which death overtook the Lord has been occasion for infidelity to suspect He only swooned, later to be revived by the coolness of the tomb. Others have sought to divine some unique fact in His medical history, such as a rupture of the heart due to the violence of the emotional stress under which He suffered. Still others have appealed to the voluntary surrender of His life implied in the expression, He “yielded up his spirit” (
This most brutal and degrading form of execution devised by civilized man was abolished by Constantine, prob. out of reverence for the sign under which he was said to have conquered. From this time on, the cross, the symbol of disgrace and degradation, became the chief symbol of the Christian faith.
There are two questions that have no direct bearing on the meaning of Christ’s death, which are nonetheless of such perennial interest as to warrant a brief discussion. One concerns the time of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion; the other, the responsibility for these events.
As for the first question—the date of the crucifixion—was it on the 14th of Nisan (April 6) or the day following, the 15th? If the former date is chosen, not only is there a discrepancy between John and the synoptics as to the most important and conspicuous date in the life of Jesus, but also the last meal that Jesus ate with His disciples was not the Passover. This fact would cast doubts on the historicity of the synoptic accounts of the institution of the
As for the question of responsibility for His death, the Church has traditionally accused the Jews of the crime of deicide, for which they were supposedly accursed to all generations. Only the hollow eyes of prejudice could fail to see that this was a pious cloak to cover a deep-seated anti-Semitism. The canonical gospels indeed indicate that Jesus’ death was instigated by the Jews—which was inevitable under the circumstances—but it was made possible, approved, and carried out by the Rom. authorities. It would seem, then, that neither Jews nor Gentiles can escape the reproach of complicity in this crime. It was the sin of all humanity against heaven, an evil that God has transformed into our salvation, so making His goodness to triumph over man’s wickedness.
In saying all this, the theology of Christ’s death is introduced, which is the primary, almost exclusive concern of the NT apart from the gospels. The doctrine of the cross was first elaborated by Paul, who was concerned not with the historical details, but with the salvation significance of the cross. Christ “became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (
Paul wrote to the Galatians that if he were to proclaim circumcision as the means of salvation, then the offense of the cross would be removed, but circumcision and the cross are mutually exclusive; therefore, he will glory in the cross that all glorying in self may be brought to nought (
The rest of the NT takes essentially the same view of Christ’s death as is found in the epistles of Paul. Especially in Hebrews is this the case. Christ is set forth as a priest whose work is to bring sinners into fellowship with God. To do this He had to die, and to die, He had a body prepared for Him (
Here we behold God’s inmost heart,
Where grace and vengeance strangely join;
Here his whole name appears complete,
His wrath, his wisdom, and his love.
Having known His “whole name” in the cross, Christians look forward to the day when, with men from every tribe and kindred and tongue and nation, they shall join in praise to the Lamb who was slain, who loved His own and loosed them from their sins by His blood (
B. H. Throckmorton, ed., Gospel Parallels, (1949), 163-186; J. Denney, The(1951); J. Schneider, “Stauros,” TWNT (1964); G. C. Berkouwer, The Work of Christ (1965), ch. 6.