The Crucifixion of Jesus
As we turn to John’s narrative of the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus, one of the things you’ll notice about his description is that he doesn’t spend a lot of time detailing the ins and outs of crucifixion. He doesn’t give the kinds of detail that one finds in the synoptic gospels.
Instead, John is more focused on what Jesus says, and the “why” of this whole event. We too should focus on the why, and not get overly caught up in the gruesomeness of the “how.” I’m not saying that it isn’t important, but rather we need to look to what is of first importance.
That being said, in each of these verses there are some interesting and relevant details that we’ll examine as we go verse by verse.
19:16b-17 So they took Jesus,  and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.
The first thing we read in the end of verse 16 is that “they” took Jesus. I think John can only be referring to the Roman soldiers at this point. Jesus is now in the custody of Rome; His trial now over, and He is making His way to the place of execution through the streets of Jerusalem – the path we now refer to as the via dolorosa (The way of Grief/Sorrows).
Lifted Up Along a Highway
Next, the place Jesus was taken was outside the old city walls, to a hill near the road which ran alongside the city where travelers and citizens of the city could see Him and the others being executed. Foreigners coming in for the feast days and for trade in the city would be coming from all over the known world at the time. Therefore, as Jesus was lifted up, He was lifted up for all the world to see.
Remember, that throughout his gospel when John talks about Jesus being “lifted up” this is His way of showing that Jesus is being exalted. The emphasis is that exaltation for the Christ comes through humiliation.
Earlier John wrote this:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:14-18)
Therefore it is significant that He is led to a place that is highly trafficked, and where travelers from all over the known world would have beheld His humiliation/exaltation.
Now from a Roman perspective, it made a lot of sense to bring criminals to this point along the highway because the execution of criminals near the road would send a message to those daring to oppose their rule.
Any foreigner coming to Jerusalem would know what happens to those who misbehave during their stay in the ancient city, and any native of David’s city would be reminded that they were under occupation by a regime from the north. They were living in the land, and yet living in exile.
Outside the City
The next thing we have to note is that the place the Romans took Jesus was outside of the city walls at the time. From a prophetic perspective, this is really important. Jesus died outside the city just as the OT sacrifices would be slaughtered outside the camp.
In Exodus 29 we read this:
But the flesh of the bull and its skin and its dung you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering. (Exodus 29:14)
And it is no coincidence that in the parable of the vineyard, Jesus describes His own death at the hands of the sinful servants as ending “outside the vineyard”:
And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. (Matthew 21:39)
Taking all of these thoughts and words together, the author of Hebrews explains the significance:
For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp.  So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.  Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.  For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.  Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.  Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:11-16)
So Jesus is led outside the city walls. He is to be a sin offering, our sin offering. He is lifted up, because that it is through humiliation that He will be exalted. This is all done on the edge of a road where travelers from around the known world will behold Him, indeed in this way He will be lifted up for the entire “world” to see (there is a significant parallel with how people from all over the known world gather together in Jerusalem at Pentecost just a few weeks later and hear the truth of God proclaimed in their language – see John Stott’s Acts commentary for more on this).
The Place of the Skull
Now John says Jesus was led to a place called “Golgotha.” From a contextual note, there are a few places where Jesus was said to have suffered and died and historians are not agreed on the exact location.
The two most popular are called “Gordon’s Calvary” and the ground upon which the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built. I have just recently come back from Jerusalem, and have visited both locations. At Gordon’s Calvary there is still a very distinct side of a mountain where a face (or skull) can be seen etched out of the rock. It used to be that in days past, a rock quarry lay just beneath the etching and that Jesus would have been crucified in front of the skull in the quarry – not on top of that particular hill, but on the hill that the quarry was on top of with the skull providing the background image.
Gordon’s Calvary is named after British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon who popularized the idea that this could be the location. The Garden Tomb Association, who owns the land there now, gives this brief history on their website:
As early as 1842 a German Theologian named Otto Thenius proposed the idea that the outcropping of rock known today as “Skull Hill” could possibly be significant in the identification of the site of the crucifixion. That idea lay seemingly dormant for quite some time until General Charles Gordon on sabbatical in the area (1883) began to publish similar ideas. Because of his importance in British society at that time the idea took hold and people began to look seriously at the claims that this could possibly be the site listed in the New Testament as Golgotha (Aramaic) or Calvary (Latin) – the place of the skull. It was the efforts of two ladies in particular, Charlotte Hussey and Louisa Hope, who followed these ideas and began to take them seriously and thought that the place ought to be preserved.
They also discovered a tomb nearby which matched many of the descriptions of the tomb we find in the Bible narrative where Jesus was laid:
After people began to take seriously the claims that the area at the base of the rock cliff could possibly be Golgotha, it led to a renewed interest in other findings of earlier times. In 1867 an ancient Jewish tomb had been discovered and subsequently detailed and published by Conrad Schick. In light of all that was happening, people began to believe that the site may have significance and they re-examined what had been detailed previously. The Bible describes that Jesus was crucified outside the city of Jerusalem near a gate of the city along a major thoroughfare, that at the place where He was crucified there was a garden and in the garden a tomb. The tomb is described as being a tomb cut out of rock, belonging to a wealthy man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea. It had a weeping chamber, a burial chamber, it was sealed with a rolling stone, it had a traditionally low doorway through which the disciples were forced to stoop in order to look into (and enter) the tomb that morning. (http://www.gardentomb.com/about/why-the-garden/)
The second location, and I might say the “first” in terms of historical tradition, is the location upon which the current Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built.
This location is located in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem and has been held at the traditional site since at least the 4th century. Wikipedia (that all knowing and trustworthy source…) has a few graphs on the early history:
According to Eusebius, the Roman emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century built a temple dedicated to the Roman goddessVenus in order to bury the cave in which Jesus had been buried. The first Christian Emperor, Flavius Constantinus, ordered in about 325/326 that the temple be replaced by a church. During the building of the Church, Constantine’s mother, Helena, is believed to have rediscovered the True Cross, and a tomb (although there are some discrepancies among authors).
In his ‘Life of Constantine’ Eusebius speaks about this location saying that it showed “a clear and visible proof” that it was the tomb of Jesus.
It is interesting that most commentators I read during my exegetical study of the passage completely rule our Gordon’s Calvary. But whatever the place, we know that both locations stood outside of where the city boundaries were during those days.
19:18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.
Crucifixion was the most horrific way a person could die in these days. Carson gives a good explanation:
In the ancient world, this most terrible of punishments is always associated with shame and horror. It was so brutal that no Roman citizen could be crucified without the sanction of the Emperor. Stripped naked and beaten to a pulpy weakness, the victim could hang in the hot sun for hours, even days. To breathe, it was necessary to push with the legs and pull with the arms to keep the chest cavity open and functioning. Terrible muscle spasm wracked the entire body; but since collapse meant asphyxiation, the strain went on and on. This is why the sedecula (the piece of wood that was sort of like a seat) prolonged life and agony: it partially supported the body’s weight, and therefore encouraged the victim to fight on.
The history behind this form of execution is well documented. William Barclay describes the background:
Even the Romans themselves regarded it with a shudder of horror. Cicero declared that it was ‘the most cruel and horrifying death.’ Tacitus said that it was a despicable death.’ Crucifixion was originally a Persian method of execution. It may have been used because, to the Persians, the earth was sacred, and they wished to avoid defiling it with the body of a criminal and an evildoer; so they nailed him to a cross and left him to die there, and then left the vultures and the carrion crows to complete the work. The Carthaginians took over crucifixion from the Persians; and the Romans learned it from the Carthaginians. Crucifixion was never used as a method of execution in Italy; it was only used in the provinces, and there only in the case of slaves. It was unthinkable that a Roman citizen should die by such a death. Cicero says, ‘It is a crime for a Roman citizen to be bound; it is a worse crime for him to be beaten; it is well nigh parricide for him to be killed; what am I to say if he be killed on a cross? A nefarious action such as that is incapable of description by any word, for there is none fit to describe it.’ It was that death, the most dreaded death in the ancient world, the death of slaves and criminals, that Jesus died” (Boice’s Commentary on John, Volume 5, Pg. 1496).
There were also two men on either side of Jesus. Each was a criminal – the language used by John could indicate that they could have been rebel fighters/guerillas/insurrectionists. We know from Luke’s account and from the other gospel writers, that one of them had a miraculous change of heart, and place his faith on Jesus before his life expired. John, however, does not focus on that event, but rather chooses to give us insights that the other writers had not mentioned to date.
19:19-22 Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek.  So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’”  Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
It was common practice for the Romans to inscribe the crime of an offender on a piece of wood or label like this and then hang it around the neck of the criminal during the execution. After the criminal died, the tag would be fastened to the cross as a reminder of the payment, the cost if you will, of committing that crime. People could look up, see the crime of “stealing” or “sedition” and note in one glance the blood stained cross which served as an indicator what that crime had cost the one associated with it. A significant deterrent.
Now the crime that we read is associated with Jesus is the one which the Jews used before the Romans, and not the one they had used in the Jewish trial. In the Jewish trial before Caiaphas and Annas, they had accused Jesus of blasphemy because He had claimed to be equal with God. But before the Romans they accused Him of being s traitor and inciting sedition because He claimed to be the Christ, a king. And even though Pilate didn’t buy it, he still gave Jesus over to be killed – an act of murder for one not found to be guilty.
Therefore, Jesus’ sign said – in Aramaic (Hebrew), Latin, and Greek – that He was the king of the Jews. The variance of languages served as a way for all men who would be passing by to be able to read what was written, “the local vernacular, the official language, and the language of common international communication” with Latin being the official language of the Roman soldier (cf. Ridderbos, Boice etc.).
Of course having the crime indicate that Jesus was king of the Jews enraged the Jewish leadership, so they wanted an adaptation. However, Pilate basically delivered a final shot to the Jews by saying “hey, you used this charge of sedition to accuse this man, and now your stuck with your accusation, even if it makes your people look ridiculous.” So this was another way to demean the Jews, and exact some vengeance on them for forcing his hand in the verdict.
19:23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom,  so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” So the soldiers did these things,
Here again John sees fulfilled prophecy in each little even that happens in the death of Jesus. He has had decades to think on these things, to search the scriptures, and to realize the depth of richness that encompass what took place here on Golgotha.
The OT passage that John cites is from Psalm 22. That Psalm was written by David and carries with it great significance. The Psalms talks of the faithfulness of God to His elect. It describes the pain of David, and his anguish and humiliation before his enemies. But his writing found its greater and fuller significance in David’s Greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose body was wasted away to nothing on our account. It is a Psalm which celebrates the salvation/righteousness of God to all who are His people – including “a people yet unborn” – from every tribe, tongue and nation.
There is one first, 22:1, which Jesus quoted from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Later in the Psalm we read the specific passage that pertains to His garments, which we have just read about here in John, but it also mentions his hands and feet being pierced, and even his thirsty condition.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;  my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.  For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet—  I can count all my bones— they stare and gloat over me;  they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22:14-18)
I love how the Psalm ends, and George Robertson describes its meaning:
It is the suffering of Christ that has secured these patterns of faithfulness for the unfaithful. Jesus did this by carrying out God’s eternal plan to provide “righteousness” through his own sacrificial death (Ps. 22:31; Rev. 13:8). His cry of forsakenness from the cross was the announcement that he had become a “curse” for his people, which “redeemed us from the curse of the law” and fulfilled the Abrahamic promise to bring salvation to the nations (Gal. 3:13-14; cf. Ps. 22:1). Those who put their faith in Christ can therefore be assured that they will never be cursed (The Gospel Transformation Bible).
The last few verses in Psalm 22 read this:
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.  For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.  All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive.  Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;  they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it. (Psalm 22:27-31)
19:25-27 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!”  Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
These words of Jesus are said to be His “last will and testament”, and we’ve all no doubt studied them in the past. It is of great significance that Jesus cared for those around Him until His dying breath.
I am reminded of John’s words from chapter 13, “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
How convicting is it – and revealing of our corrupted hearts – that during trials and great ordeals we cannot think of anything or anyone but ourselves and the circumstances which envelope us.
Think to your last trial – perhaps even a current trial you are wading through. What preoccupied your thoughts in those difficult hours? Who were you primarily concerned with?
I find my own thoughts in times of great peril or trial are often turned inward, at myself and my own survival.
Not so with Jesus.
Jesus was a man who was touched with the infirmities of humanity. He was suffering excruciating pain (that word, by the way, is a etymological creation passed down from the pain of the crucifixion) and yet His mind wavered not. It was on His mission, and on those closest to Him.
Also, I find it very interesting that Jesus was on a great mission to save the world, and yet He did not overlook the weakest among Him. He took care of His earthly mother before departing this world. So often it is great men of this world who are so enraptured in their work, or their circumstances, that they fail to love and tenderly care for those who are their kin. This is so much the case in the evangelical church that Pastor’s children are notoriously ill-behaved. These great men of God fail utterly to invest in their children. They are so busy carrying out their life’s mission that they overlook those whom God has given them to care for most.
Our loved ones ought not to be sacrificed on the alter of “mission” – whether that be the mission at work, or the mission of the Gospel. We have been entrusted by the Almighty God with the investiture of souls who ought to be loved and cared for above all else. This is the example of Jesus, our Lord. He suffered not to let Mary go into the remainder of her life without the care and attention of a specific caretaker. That caretaker was John.
What a grand lesson to all who are entrusted with mighty tasks. Let world leaders, church leaders, political and business leaders take note. Let us humble ourselves before the example of our Lord and Savior, and seek to emulate His caring heart.