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Death of Christ

DEATH OF CHRIST. The New Testament writers 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 Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). This emphasis is reflected in the manner in which the gospels report the story of Jesus’ life. The spotlight focuses on the last few days of Christ’s public ministry, leading up to His crucifixion. The Evangelists considered His death the great purpose of His life; Jesus lived that He might die.

When Jesus first introduced the subject of His death (Matt 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22), it marked a turning point in His ministry. He spent less time with the multitudes and more with the Twelve; He spoke not only of the kingdom, but also of Himself, esp. the death He must die. The necessity of His death is not reported in a manner that presents Jesus as a helpless victim of overpowering opposition. Though the forces of evil that He faced were mighty, even in the last hour He could have summoned legions of angels to His rescue (Matt 26:53). Rather, His own anticipation of His death testified to Jesus’ sense of vocation and destiny as the One to fulfill the role of the suffering servant of the Lord. Hence, “when the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem,” a resolution that could not be daunted (Luke 9:51f.).

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 (Matt 21:1-11 and parallels), His authority was soon challenged (21:23-27 and parallels), and as opposition stiffened, the chief priests conspired to destroy Him (26:1-5, and parallels), in which conspiracy Judas, one of the Twelve, became surreptitiously involved (26:14-16 and parallels). While Judas plotted to betray His master for money, Jesus sent two disciples to a private residence with directions for preparing the Passover, which He observed on Thursday evening with His disciples. Jesus solemnly reminded them that He was soon to leave them, going so far as to identify the traitor, though the disciples were too incredulous and amazed to apprehend the significance of Judas’ treachery.

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’” (26:26-28).

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, Psalms 113-118 and 136) and went out to the Mount of Olives. (At this point they lingered to talk, for John records a long farewell discourse concluding with the well-known intercessory prayer, John 13-17.) As Jesus spoke further of His impending death and their defection, the disciples—esp. Peter—protested their steadfast loyalty, even producing weapons ready for His defense.

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 (Luke 22:42-44). Some have interpreted this statement to mean that His perspiration was large and beady, but the assimilation to blood strongly suggests the color of red, and several instances have been cited of a bleeding of the pores of those suffering from intense emotional anguish. More important than the physical aspects of the Lord’s suffering is His resolute submission to His Father’s will, which He achieved in and through this severe trial—a resolution without which salvation could never have been achieved. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death....he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb 5:7ff.).

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 (Matt 26:47-56 and parallels).

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 (John 18:6). This was evidently intended to underscore the truth that Jesus was master of the situation even at the moment of His arrest, and is in keeping with the saying, “No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). (In this same vein, John also reported Jesus’ answer to Pilate, when he claimed to have power to crucify Jesus. “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above,” 19:11.)

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 (Matt 26:57-75 and parallels). After great difficulty in securing competent and consistent witnesses against Jesus, Caiaphas finally adjured Him respecting His Messianic claims, and upon the strength of His avowal, accused Him of blasphemy, the whole council concurring in the sentence of death. In this account of the trial before the Jewish authorities, the repeated denial of Peter counterpoints Jesus’ indictment as a secondary theme, and underscores further the utter loneliness of the Lord in the hour of His extremity. Condemned by His compatriots, denied by His friends, the tragic element is heightened—if possible—as Judas the betrayer, in a paroxysm of remorse, confessed the innocence of Jesus, cast down the accursed silver on the pavement, and went out and hanged himself. The twisted conscience of the elders is revealed in their calloused indifference to Judas’ confession and their careful use of the money so as not to offend legal scruple (27:3-10).

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 (Luke 23:8-12). The moment of truth had now come for Pilate. Compelled to adjudicate the case, yet convinced of the prisoner’s innocence—his conscience being reinforced by a message from his wife—he sought to release Jesus as a common criminal according to the custom that dictated a gesture of clemency at the Passover season. Instead, the multitude clamored for the release of Barabbas, a notorious criminal; and Pilate having ceremoniously washed his hands before them, yielded to their demands, passed sentence upon Jesus, and left Him to the abuse of the Rom. soldiers (Matt 27:15-30 and parallels).

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 (Luke 23:26-31). Having reached the place of execution, He was crucified between two criminals, with a prayer on His lips for His murderers. Though reviled by spectators, soldiers, and Jewish leaders, one of the thieves sued for mercy and was assured by Jesus with the well-known words, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43). Having committed His mother to the care of John, and having given utterance in the language of Psalm 22 to His agonizing loneliness (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) He expired with a loud cry, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!”. The veil of the Temple was rent by an earthquake and the sun was darkened. The centurion in charge, awed by evidence of the supernatural, exclaimed, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Luke 23:33-47).

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 (John 19:31-37).

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 Alexander the Great (who crucified 2,000 Tyrians at one time), and then by the Carthaginians whence it came to the Romans. It was commonly acknowledged the most horrible form of death, worse than burning. (A fire was sometimes built under the crucified to hasten death.) In the scourging that preceded the crucifixion, soldiers often used nails or pieces of bone to heighten the pain, which was sometimes so intense that the victim died under its duress. (Pilate had Jesus flogged before passing sentence, not so much from custom, it would seem, as to excite pity and procure immunity from further punishment, Luke 23:22.) The main stake forming the cross was secured in the ground in advance, and the condemned carried the crossbar with him from the place of incarceration to the place of execution. Lying on the ground, he was tied or nailed to the crossbar, and then raised up and fastened to the main post. The body of the victim was usually only a foot or two above the ground. Midway up the main post was a peg on which the weight of the body rested, and the feet were secured by tying or nailing. Sometimes a single nail secured both feet. At this point usually some drink was given to confuse the senses and deaden the pain (Jesus refused it, Matt 27:34). A centurion with a band of soldiers was assigned to keep watch, because the lingering character of the death would allow a person to be taken down and recover, which sometimes happened. (It is reported that women among the Convulsionaires were crucified repeatedly, some remaining on a cross for three hours.)

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” (27:50; cf. John 10:18, “I lay it [my life] down of my own accord”). Whatever theory one may adopt of the cause of Jesus’ death it is beyond all cavil that He died. Pilate expressly satisfied himself on this score by questioning the centurion (Mark 15:44). It cannot be doubted that He suffered excruciating agonies before He was mercifully relieved by death.

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 Lord's Supper|Lord’s Supper and Jesus’ own understanding of His impending death. The technical aspects of this question are too large for an article of this scope. Suffice it to say that when John commented that the Jewish leaders did not enter the praetorium to remain undefiled and so eat the Passover (John 18:28), or again, when the day of the trial was identified as the preparation of the Passover (19:14), the term “Passover” need not be narrowly understood of the initial evening meal, but is flexible enough to include the entire feast of unleavened bread that followed the meal that Jesus celebrated with His disciples (see Jos. Antiq. XVII. ix. 3 and Jos. Wars II. i. 3; also Luke 22:1). On such an interpretation, there is no discrepancy between John and the synoptics who plainly teach that Jesus partook of the paschal supper. This supper occurred on Thursday evening, as we reckon time. That same Thursday night He was betrayed, seized by the Jewish authorities and condemned by the Sanhedrin. Early Friday morning He was brought before Pilate, and before the day was over, that is before sundown, He had been condemned, crucified, and buried.

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” (Phil 2:8f.), and by this obedience to His Father’s will He accomplished man’s salvation. Hence, wherever Paul went, he so preached Christ crucified as to placard Him before the eyes of all who heard (Gal 3:1). This word of the cross is God’s wisdom, which is foolishness to human reason; but to those who are saved, it is the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor 1:18ff.).

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 (Gal 5; 6).

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 (Heb 10:5). The incarnation was for the purpose of atonement. And this atoning death was, so to speak, God’s last word; He has nothing more in reserve. Christianity is final. Speaking of the cross of Christ, Watts wrote:

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 (Rev 1:5; 5:9). See Jesus Christ.


B. H. Throckmorton, ed., Gospel Parallels, (1949), 163-186; J. Denney, The Death of Christ (1951); J. Schneider, “Stauros,” TWNT (1964); G. C. Berkouwer, The Work of Christ (1965), ch. 6.