When someone tells us that they have good news to share, we expect them to tell us that they got married, are pregnant, earned a promotion at work, or got a clean bill of health from a doctor after a medical scare. Perhaps the last thing we’d expect to hear in the context of good news is to hear that someone who loved us was murdered. Among the scandals of the cross is the fact that Christians have called it their gospel, or good news, and celebrate it every year on Good Friday. To understand the good news of Jesus’ death we must first examine how he died. Then we can examine why he died.
In the days leading up to his death, Jesus was a young man in his early thirties. He was in good health due to his job as a carpenter and his constant walking of many miles as an itinerant minister. Jesus began speaking openly of his impending death, including at the Passover meal he ate with his friends as the Last Supper. There, he broke with fifteen centuries of protocol. In so doing, he showed that the Passover meal, which God’s people had been eating annually, found its ultimate fulfillment in him. The Passover memorialized the night in Egypt when in faith God’s people covered the doorposts of their home with blood so that death would not come to the firstborn son in their home but would rather pass them over. [ENDNOTE #1] Jesus, the firstborn Son of God, likewise had come to die and cover us with his blood so that God’s just wrath would literally pass over us sinners as the essence of the new covenant. [ENDNOTE #2]
During the Last Supper, Satan entered one of Jesus’ disciples, Judas, who had been stealing money from Jesus’ ministry fund for some time and had agreed to hand him over to the authorities to be crucified. After Judas left the meal to lead the soldiers to Jesus, Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane, where he spent a sleepless night in the agony of prayer. Meanwhile, his disciples failed to intercede for him in prayer and instead kept falling asleep. At this point, Jesus was fully aware of his impending crucifixion and was so distressed that, as the Bible records, he sweat drops of blood, a physical condition that doctors report is rare because it requires an elevated level of stress that few people ever experience.
After an exhausting, sleepless night of distress, Judas arrived with the soldiers and betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Jesus was then arrested. He was forced to walk through a series of false trials where contradicting false witnesses were brought forward to offer false testimony. Despite the absence of any evidence supporting the false charges, Jesus was sentenced to be murdered. He was eventually blindfolded as a mob of cowardly men beat him mercilessly. He was then stripped in great shame, and the Bible simply says that they had him scourged.
Scourging itself was such a painful event that many people died from it without even making it to their cross. Jesus’ hands would have been chained above his head to expose his back and legs to an executioner’s whip called a cat-o’-nine tails or a flagrum. Two men, one on each side, took turns whipping the victim. The whip was a series of long leather straps. At the end of some of the straps were heavy balls of metal intended to tenderize the body of a victim, like a chef tenderizes a steak by beating it. Some of the straps had hooks made of glass, metal, or bone that would have sunk deeply into the shoulders, back, buttocks, and legs of the victim. Once the hooks had lodged into the tenderized flesh, the executioner would rip the skin, muscle, tendons, and even bones off the victim. The victim’s skin and muscles would hang off the body like ribbons as the hooks dissected the skin to the nerve layers. The damage could go so deep that even the lungs were bruised, which made breathing difficult. Some doctors have compared the damage of flogging to the results of a shotgun blast. [ENDNOTE #3] The victim would bleed profusely and would often go into shock, due to severe blood loss and insufficient blood flow near and through the heart.
Jesus’ bare back and shoulders, though bloodied and traumatized, were then forced to carry his roughly hewn wooden cross to his place of crucifixion. If Jesus carried the entire cross, it would have weighed a few hundred pounds, and many think it is more likely he carried just the crossbar (patibulum), which would have been about one hundred pounds.
Despite his young age and good health, Jesus was so physically devastated from his sleepless night, miles of walking, severe beating, and scourging that he collapsed under the weight of the cross, unable to carry it alone. Doctors have said that the trauma from the heavy crossbar crushing his chest into the ground could have caused a bruised heart, similar to the chest trauma caused by a car accident without a seatbelt where the driver is violently thrown against the steering wheel. [ENDNOTE #4] Understandably unable to continue carrying his cross on the roughly one-mile journey to his execution, a man named Simon of Cyrene was appointed to carry Jesus’ cross. Upon arriving at his place of crucifixion, they pulled Jesus’ beard out—an act of ultimate disrespect in ancient cultures—spat on him, and mocked him in front of his family and friends.
Jesus the carpenter, who had driven many nails into wood with his own hands, then had five-to seven-inch rough metal spikes driven into the most sensitive nerve centers on the human body, through his hands and feet. Jesus was nailed to his wooden cross. His body would have twitched involuntarily, writhing in agony.
In further mockery, a sign was posted above Jesus that said, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” [ENDNOTE #5] A painting later discovered from a second-century Roman graffito further shows the disrespect of Jesus at his crucifixion. The painting depicts the head of a jackass being crucified, with a man standing alongside it with his arms raised. The caption reads, “Alexamenos worships his god.”
At this point during a crucifixion, the victims labored to breathe as their bodies went into shock. Naked and embarrassed, the victims would often use their remaining strength to seek revenge on the crowd of mockers who had gathered to jeer them. They would curse at their tormentors while urinating and spitting on them. Some victims would become so overwhelmed with pain that they would become incontinent and a pool of sweat, blood, urine, and feces would gather at the base of their cross.
Jesus’ crucifixion was a hideously grotesque scene. Hundreds of years in advance, the prophet Isaiah saw it this way:
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. [ENDNOTE #6]
Crucifixion usually kills by asphyxiation in addition to other factors—the heart is deeply stressed, the body is traumatized, the muscles are devastated, and the blood loss is severe. Doctors have thought that Jesus likely had a chest contusion and possibly a bruised heart from falling with the cross on top of him, which caused an aneurysm. [ENDNOTE #7] Subsequently, Jesus’ heart would have been unable to pump enough blood and his lungs would have filled up with carbon monoxide. Jesus not only lived through all of this, but he even spoke lucidly and clearly with enough volume to be heard by those present.
From the cross he announced forgiveness for those who crucified him, assured the criminal crucified next to him that they would be together in paradise, commended his mother to John, cried of forsakenness showing his spiritual death and separation from the Father, and expressed his agonized thirst. [ENDNOTE #8]
At last Jesus said in a loud voice of triumph, “It is finished.” [ENDNOTE #9] At this moment, the atonement for sin was made and the holiness, righteousness, justice, and wrath of the triune God were satisfied in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Jesus then said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” [ENDNOTE #10] Jesus reserved his final breath from the cross to shout his triumphant victory to the world by confirming that he had been restored to God the Father after atoning for human sin.
The Bible then simply records that Jesus breathed his last and died.
Jesus hung on the cross for at least six hours—from the third hour to the ninth hour, when the darkness ended. [ENDNOTE #11] How long thereafter that he breathed his last and died is not clear in Scripture. What is more clear is the fact that if a victim remained alive on the cross for too long so that it interfered with another event like a major holiday, it was customary to break the victim’s legs, disabling him from pushing himself up on his cross to fill his lungs with air and thereby prolong his life. However, in accordance with the promise of Scripture, Jesus died quickly enough that his legs were not broken. [ENDNOTE #12]
Furthermore, to ensure Jesus was dead, a professional executioner ran a spear through his side, which punctured his heart sac, and water and blood flowed from his side. This is further evidence that Jesus died of a heart attack; the sac around the heart filled with water until the pressure caused Jesus’ heart to stop beating. Thus, Jesus possibly died with both a literal and metaphorical broken heart.
For many years, the most sacred place on earth had been the temple, where the presence of God dwelled behind a thick curtain. Only one person each year, the high priest, was allowed to pass by that curtain and enter the presence of God on one day, the Day of Atonement. At the death of Jesus, however, the temple curtain was torn from top to bottom, signifying that God had opened his presence to the world through the cross of Jesus.
The most succinct summary of the gospel in Scripture provides insight into this theological meaning: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” [ENDNOTE #13] In this packed section of Scripture, Paul appoints the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as the most important event in all of history and the verification of the truthfulness of all Scripture.
He then explains why this is good news with the simple word “for,” showing that Jesus died “for our sins.” The word “for” can mean either “for the benefit of” or “because of.” Jesus did not die “for the benefit of” our sins. He did not help them at all! Rather, he died “because of” our sins. So it was our sins but his death. From the beginning of sacred Scripture [ENDNOTE #14] to the end [ENDNOTE #15], the penalty for sin is death. Therefore, if we sin, we should die. But it is Jesus, the sinless one, who dies in our place “for our sins.” The good news of the gospel is that Jesus died to take to himself the penalty for our sin. In theological terms, this means that Jesus’ death was substitutionary, or vicarious, and in our place solely for our benefit and without benefit for himself. Therefore, we find the cross of Jesus to be the crux of good news because it was there that Jesus atoned for our sin according to the promises of Scripture.
Jesus’ work for us on the cross is called atonement (at-one-ment); Jesus our God became a man to restore a relationship between God and humanity. The concept of Jesus’ dying in our place to pay our penalty for our sins has been expressed in theological shorthand as penal substitution. Scripture repeatedly and clearly declares that Jesus died as our substitute paying our penalty “for” our sins. [ENDNOTE #16]
One theologian has called the cross the great jewel of the Christian faith, and like every great jewel it has many precious facets that are each worthy of examining for their brilliance and beauty. [ENDNOTE #17]
Therefore, you will be well served to see each side of this jewel shining together for the glory of God in complementary, not contradictory, fashion. Most poor teaching about the cross results from someone denying, ignoring, or overemphasizing one of these facets at the expense of the others, often due to an overreaction to someone else’s overreaction.
Many of these facets were foreshadowed in the Old Testament, specifically by the annual celebration of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) according to the regulations of the book of Leviticus. The Day of Atonement was the most important day of the year and was often referred to simply as “the day.” It was intended to deal with the sin problem between humanity and God. Of the many prophetic elements on this special day, one stands out. On that day, two healthy goats without defect were chosen; they were therefore fit to represent sinless perfection.
The first goat was a propitiating sin offering. The high priest slaughtered this innocent goat, which acted as a substitute for the sinners who rightly deserved a violently bloody death for their many sins. He then sprinkled some of its blood on the mercy seat on top of the Ark of the Covenant inside the Most Holy Place. The goat was no longer innocent when it took the guilt of sin; it was a sin offering for the people. [ENDNOTE #18] Subsequently, its blood represented life given as payment for sin. The dwelling place of God was thus cleansed of the defilement that resulted from all of the transgressions and sins of the people of Israel, and God’s just and holy wrath was satisfied.
Then the high priest, acting as the representative and mediator between the sinful people and their holy God, would take the second goat and lay his hands on the animal while confessing the sins of the people. This goat, called the scapegoat, would then be sent away to run free into the wilderness away from the sinners, symbolically expiating our sins by taking them away.
These great images of the priest, slaughter, and scapegoat are all given by God to help us more fully comprehend Jesus’ work for us on the cross.
- Exodus 6–12.
- Luke 22:19–21.
- Crucifixion, A&E Television and The History Channel.
- John 19:19.
- Crucifixion, A&E Television and The History Channel.
- Luke 23:34; Luke 23:43; John 19:26-27, Psalm 22:2, Matt. 27:46 cf. Mark 15:34 as this is the only statement from the cross appearing in more than one gospel, John 19:28-29. It is possible that the sponge and wine vinegar were part of the military kit used by soldiers to clean themselves after going to the bathroom in the field, the ancient version of both toilet paper and disinfectant.
- John 19:30.
- Luke 23:46.
- Mark 15:25, 33.
- 34:20; John 19:36.
- 1 Cor. 15:3b–4.
- 53:5, 12; Rom. 4:25; 5:8; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 3:18; 1 John 2:2.
- To learn more about each facet of the cross, see our book Death by Love: Letters from the Cross (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).