Like a Lamb to the slaughter
“Like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth” [Isaiah 53:7].
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was in great torment, soaked in sweat, beads of perspiration falling from his brow like raindrops from the sky, trembling as if a great pain racked his body. The perspiration became drops of blood. In despair he prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by … Nevertheless, let it be as You, not I, would have it.”
Jesus of Nazareth, at his weakest, his lowest point, accepted his fate. By his acceptance of the will of God, his Father, Jesus triumphed. Good triumphed over evil. Satan lost the final battle and humankind was saved.
Or, so it seemed! For although the battle was won, the price was not yet paid. Blood would still be spilt, the blood of an innocent man. Jesus still had to pay the terrible price. His blood would be spilt, not just some of it, but every drop. The Cross was still to come.
A new threat entered the garden, armed guards sent from the Temple by the High Priests, intent in taking Jesus in chains back to the Temple. The kiss from his own Apostle Judas was to signal the guards as to whom they were to take. The kiss of betrayal earned Judas 30 pieces of silver. Jesus was taken away in chains and beaten by the guards on the way to the Temple. Even his friends abandoned him. They ran away in fear for their lives.
In the Temple the guards mocked and beat him. He was led before the Sanhedrin, a group of 70 men who were a religious political body for Israel. Generally comprising 24 chief priests or Sadducees, 24 elders or Pharisees, 22 scribes and 1 High priest, the Sanhedrin dictated how people were to worship God and practice Judaism. However, this was a hastily convened trial and it appears that those present were carefully selected to omit any who were likely to support Jesus. This carpenter from Nazareth was not going to challenge them and their interpretation of the law any longer. He was a troublemaker and they wanted to be rid of him.
The trial was a sham. They set out to humiliate Jesus, to reveal him as a fake. Witnesses hastily arranged were paid to give false testimony – but even they could not get their stories straight. Finally, the high priest put a question to Jesus: ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ said Jesus, ‘and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven’ [Mark 14:61-62]. That was all they needed. Blasphemy they cried, as they struck him, spat on him.
The Sanhedrin did not have the power to condemn Jesus to death, so they took him to Governor Pilate, the representative of Rome, with the expectation he would act on their recommendation and order the death of Jesus. Pilate was reluctant to get involved and when his own questioning of Jesus yielded no result, he ordered that Jesus be taken to King Herod. Herod had no better luck than Pilate. He quickly tired of the non-responsive Jesus and ordered that he be taken back to Pilate, who again questioned Jesus and still could not get anything from him. Yet, the priests and elders urged Pilate to condemn him.
Now at this Passover festival time, it was the practice of the Governor to release a prisoner. Pilate hit upon the idea of offering a choice to the crowd, Barabbas the murderer or Jesus of Nazareth. No doubt Pilate expected the crowd would select the innocent man over the murderer. But the priests and the elders had done their homework and turned the crowd in their favour. So, Pilate was amazed when the crowd demanded the release of Barabbas. He asked the crowd what should be done with Jesus. “Let Him be crucified” was the shouted response. The Governor sought direction from the mob as to what Jesus had done wrong. The crowd though was in frenzy and Pilate feared that a riot might break out. So it was that Governor Pilate washed his hands of the blood of an innocent man and had him sentenced to death by crucifixion. Barabbas the murderer was set free and Jesus, the innocent man in whom Pilate could find no fault, was delivered to the Roman soldiers for scourging.
In the powerfully moving production The Passion of the Christ, producer/director Mel Gibson provides a graphic and bloody account of the passion, from the Garden of Gethsemane to the death on the cross. Some critics were extremely vocal in their condemnation of the movie because of their perception of its excessive violence. With the true reality of the extent of the suffering to which Jesus was delivered, this movie depiction of the passion could be regarded as a fair and honest portrayal.
Up to this point Jesus had been badly treated and manhandled. And it takes very little imagination to believe that the treatment would have been brutal at the hands of men who had nothing but disdain for him.
At the time of Jesus, the Roman soldiers serving in Judea would have hated the Jews and their country as much as they were in turn hated by the Jews. The Roman soldiers likely allowed their hatred to surface with venom as they took out their anger on Jesus. The scourging would then have been particularly vicious. Unlike the Jews who limited the number of lashes to 39, the Romans had no such limitation; they scourged Jesus until he was near to death.
In the Roman Empire, the practice of scourging was often used a prelude to crucifixion. Scourging was much different from a whipping, which was a disciplinary punishment. Scourging was a barbaric first step in executing a criminal to inflict wounds from which he would never recover. Whips with small pieces of metal or bone at the tips were commonly used. Such a device could easily cause disfigurement and serious trauma, such as ripping pieces of flesh from the body or loss of an eye. In addition to causing severe pain, the victim would be made to approach the state of hypovolemic shock, a state of decreased blood volume, due to loss of blood.
The Romans reserved this treatment for non-citizens. Typically, the one to be punished was stripped naked and bound to a low pillar so that he could bend over it or chained to an upright pillar to be stretched out. Two lectors, usually strongly built men, alternated blows from the bare shoulders down the body to the soles of the feet. Though they were normally not supposed to kill the victim, there are reported cases where scourging victims died while bound to the post. Scourging was referred to as “half-death” by some authors and apparently, many victims died shortly thereafter. Often the victim was turned over to allow flagellation on the chest, though this proceeded with more caution, as the possibility of inflicting a fatal blow was much greater.
A scientific article, published under the heading “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 255, No. 11, March 21, 1986), was written by a group of medical scholars of the famous Mayo Clinic on the medical aspects of scourging: – As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim’s back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock. The extent of blood loss may well have determined how long the victim would survive the cross.”
Medical doctor Keith Maxwell offered these thoughts on the scourging: – “So with one lash, one swing of the whip, a total of nine lacerations could be inflicted on the victim, each laceration two inches long and three quarters to one inch deep. With one blow, one Roman legionnaire could inflict enough wounds to take one hundred eighty stitches to close. If you multiply that times thirty-nine, those two Roman legionnaires inflicted enough lacerations to take about 2,000 stitches to close.”
But the scourging wasn’t the end of it. Jesus was taken before the whole cohort, a sub-group of a Roman Legion which usually consisted of 480 soldiers, divided into six groups of 80 men. They “put a scarlet cloak round him and having twisted some thorns into a crown they put this on his head and placed a reed in his right hand” [Matthew 27:28-29]. They mocked, beat and hit him on the head with the reed. Each blow would drive the thorns further into his head inflicting more severe injury and loss of blood.
“When they had finished making fun of him, they took off the cloak and dressed him in his own clothes and led him away to crucifixion.”
In considering what happened to Jesus, Dr Maxwell offers this view: “So, before Jesus’ crucifixion ever begins, his face has been beaten to a pulp, no doubt his eyes were swollen shut, his nose is bloodied, and I remind you that every pore in his skin has wept and oozed blood. Every visible surface on the good Lord Jesus, I am confident, was covered and caked with dried blood. And his back and his arms and his buttocks and the back of his legs were literally torn to shreds from the scourging. This was the shape Jesus was in before they ever gave him his cross to head out to Calvary.”
Another medical practitioner suggests: “The severe scourging, with its intense pain and appreciable blood loss, most probably left Jesus in a pre-shock state. The physical and mental abuse meted out by the Jews and the Romans, as well as the lack of food, water, and sleep, also contributed to his generally weakened state. Therefore, even before the actual crucifixion, Jesus’ physical condition was at least serious and possibly critical.” He went like a Lamb to the slaughter.
Traditionally it is portrayed that Jesus carried the whole Cross to Golgotha. However, there is evidence that he carried only the horizontal bar. If the latter, the soldiers extended His arms, put the crossbar over his shoulders, a weight of approximately 40 kilograms, and tied it to his wrists and arms. It was a rough, unplanned, unfinished piece of wood with splinters, spikes and rough places in it, just as you would expect to see in an old wooden railway sleeper. Under this scenario, the vertical pole was already at the site, waiting for the execution, for they likely used them frequently.
With his arms extended in this way, Jesus would have not been able to lean or protect himself in case he fell on the way. Our Stations of the Cross depict that he fell three times and each time he must have struck his face against the ground. The weight of the crossbar would bear down on him as he fell, thus causing him to fall flat on his face, smashing it onto the hard ground.
The hill where Jesus was taken was called the ‘Place of the Skull’ – in Hebrew “Golgotha,” in Latin “calvarium” (Calvary). The traditional site was likely an abandoned quarry just outside the city’s walls, with a rocky knoll that resembled a human skull – hence the name, “Place of the Skull.” The route Jesus covered from Pilate’s headquarters to Golgotha was about 500 metres in distance. During the entire route, the rough and splintered crossbar he carried was further destroying the tissues of skin on his back and causing blisters on his shoulders. The shoulders were already covered with wounds from the scourging and those wounds opened again and became bigger with every step. Such an effort weakened Jesus so much that the soldiers forced Simon from Cyrene, a man probably just visiting Jerusalem, to help him carry the crossbar.
The Gospel writers don’t dwell on the method of crucifixion but learned students of history have determined the likely process. Jesus was stripped of his clothes and crucified completely naked, according to Roman usage, and not with a loincloth as is shown with understandable decency on our crucifixes. There were two ways of crucifying a victim; tying his arms with ropes or nailing them down. Either way the victim died of suffocation. Jesus was nailed to the Cross.
The nails were not put in the palms of the hands because the soft muscular tissue of the palms could not have supported the weight of the body. Instead, the Romans put the nails in the pulse, where the wrist flexes, and where there was a group of strong and resistant little bones which can bear a large weight. As the nail entered the pulse, it would have touched the median nerve, one of the most sensitive ones of our body, causing Jesus tremendous pain.
It was as if a question had been asked of Jesus, “Lord, how much do you love me?” In response he stretched out his left hand and they drove a nail through his wrist. Again, the question is asked: “Lord, how much do you love me?” This time he stretched out his right arm and a nail was driven through his wrist. In this position, with both arms outstretched, nailed to the cross, Jesus showed how much he loved us.
Then two forks, like pitch forks, were placed around each end of the crossbar, and boosted up with the crossbar hung on top of the upright post. Once they were braced on the upright post, both feet were nailed to the foot piece.
Most commonly, the feet were fixed to the Cross by means of an iron spike driven through the victim’s second and third metatarsus bones. The metatarsus consists of five long bones of the foot, which are numbered from the medial side. The operation was so simple it required only one blow of the hammer – the pain it caused was terrible.
While all four Gospels mention the inscription on the cross, only John develops an explanation that reads like a solemn announcement that might be proclaimed when a new king is crowned. The sign read: “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews.” [John 19:19]. John further explains the inscription was in three languages: the official language of the Roman Empire – Latin, the language of the known world – Greek and the language of Scripture – Hebrew. The Latin form became the familiar “INRI” – Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum. Pilate, the Roman Governor – without even knowing the full implications – proclaimed the truth. The man who asked Jesus “What is truth?” was the one to proclaim Jesus King! When challenged by the chief priests, Pilate for once stood his ground: “What I have written, I have written.” [John 19:22]
Medical practitioners have also provided insight into the medical effects of the crucifixion. Dr Keith Maxwell has this view: – “When hanging by their arms, as a crucifixion victim’s body weight sags down, their diaphragm functions like a billow. As the diaphragm drops into the abdomen it pulls in air, so someone hanging on the cross had no difficulty whatsoever pulling air into their lungs. The tough part for people hanging on the cross was breathing out. In order for a crucifixion victim to exhale, they would have to pull up against the spikes with their hands and push up against the spikes with their feet…. Every time he took a breath, that tattered, lacerated and riddled back was dragged and scraped across the splinters and the rough knobs and spikes protruding from the cross. Each time he breathed out, each time he uttered a word, he would have to pull up with his arms and push up with his legs.”
As a result, each respiratory effort would become agonising and tiring and lead eventually to asphyxia, a condition of severely deficient supply of oxygen to the body. In this rigid posture Jesus could suffocate quickly. In order to decompress the suffocation, he had to soothe the traction of the arms. How? By using the feet as support he could raise the body a little, easing the pressure on his hands, and breathe for a while. But the pain caused by the nail on his supporting foot was so atrocious that it forced him to let go again. This caused another suffocation crisis. Thus, the time that Jesus stood on the Cross depended on how much he resisted rising in order to breathe and falling back again. There is conjecture as to how long Jesus was on the Cross. Some claim 3 hours, others suggest as long as 6 hours. Mark’s Gospel states Jesus was crucified at 9 in the morning and died at 3 in the afternoon, a six-hour timeframe.
The soldiers and the civilian crowd taunted Jesus throughout the crucifixion ordeal, and the soldiers cast lots for His clothing. Jesus spoke seven times from the Cross. Since speech occurs during exhalation, these short, terse utterances must have been particularly difficult and painful. At about 3pm that Friday, Jesus cried in a loud voice, bowed his head, and died. The Roman soldiers and onlookers recognised his moment of death.
If Romans wanted a condemned victim to die quickly, they broke the legs; that way the victim couldn’t get support to breathe and would die within a few minutes. Since the Jews did not want the bodies to remain on the crosses after sunset, the beginning of the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to hasten the death of the three crucified men. The soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves, but when they came to Jesus, who was already dead, they did not break his legs. Rather, one of the soldiers pierced his side with an infantry spear which produced a sudden flow of blood and water. Some time prior to sunset, the body of Jesus was taken from the Cross and placed in a tomb.
He had gone like a Lamb to the slaughter. And the Angels were silent … … They remained silent until the dawning of the third day. On that day they celebrated. But, that’s another story!
Pray: Heavenly Father, I am a sinner and my nature is full of weakness. Jesus suffered so much, shed so much blood and died on the Cross for me. He was crucified for our sins and as I gaze upon him hanging from that Cross, I acknowledge that he is there because of me. I did that! Yet, through his suffering and death he gave new life to all humankind. Father, I am grateful for Jesus’ victory over death and even if I run out of words of praise, may I never run out of thanks. Amen.
Reflection Questions: And the Angels were silent …
- Picture the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. You are an observer. Jesus is afraid and praying so hard that he is soaked in sweat … and that sweat became drops of blood. He knows of his impending torture and death and prays to have the cup of suffering lifted from him? Does he know the answer before he asks the question? What is happening in you as you picture this scene?
- Some of the Apostles are in the Garden with Jesus, a short distance from where he is praying. They are unable to stay awake. Jesus then is truly alone. Have you had moments in your life when you felt truly alone? Can you recall what that was like for you? Did you overcome that sense of aloneness? How? Now consider the promise of Jesus that he will never leave you. How do you feel?
- Journal your responses.