John 19:18 – “They Crucified Him…”

There is no description of the actual crucifixion in John’s gospel. John simply states that “they crucified Jesus” along with two others. In fact, there is no description of crucifixion in any of the four gospels! This stands in contrast to most modern presentations of crucifixion, which seem intent on the gory details. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is a prime example of using shock and gore in depicting Jesus’ execution. I find it rather disturbing when well-meaning Christians attempt to following their Lord by hammering nails into their flesh.  This totally misses the point of the crucifixion and alienates people who do not understand the point of such self-mutilations.  The gospel writers were more interested in why Jesus died, rather than how the Romans tortured him.

Crucifixion was not invented by the Romans, but they perfected it as a method of execution for rebels against the empire. They called it the “extreme penalty” or “the humiliation.” It was typically reserved for the lower classes, especially  conquered peoples. The Romans considered crucifixion too degrading for a Roman citizen, so it was only used to punish   citizens who had committed treason or fled in battle. This sadistic death was the death that Jesus endured. He voluntarily submitted to a death on a cross, and all of the beatings and insults that were a part of the process. He went willingly because he knew that by his death he might bring life into the world.

The Jews knew well the punishment of crucifixion. Jews who resisted Antiochus IV Epiphanies (167-164 B.C.) were crucified (Antiq. 12.5.4). Alexander Janneus, the Hasmonean high priest, executed 800 political opponents (many were likely pharisees, Antiq. 13.14.2). In 4 B.C. the Roman general Varus lined the road from Sepphoris to Galilee with 2000 crucified Jewish rebels (War 2.5.2, Antiq. 17.10.10). A bit later in the first century the procurator Tiberius Alexander (A.D. 46-48) crucified the sons of Judas the Galilean (Antiq. 20.5.2).

That Jesus was crucified would have been offensive to Jew and Gentile. If the leader of one’s religion executed in this way, it would seem to be proof that your religion was flawed! The Romans considered talk of a cross to be impolite. One did not describe the process or talk about the details. Since death by crucifixion was intentionally sadistic and cruel, it was simply not a appropriate topic for conversation. It was an extreme punishment meant to keep conquered people in their place.

To the Jew, anyone killed by crucifixion was under the curse. The Old Testament said that anything that was hung on a tree was cursed (Deut 21:22-23). It was the ultimate insult to the Jew of the first century to be told that not only did the Messiah come and they did not recognize him, but that he had been crucified as a common criminal. Christianity was blasphemy to the Jew.

To the Greek, the death of Jesus on the cross was foolishness. It was strange to think that the true God of the universe might take human form, but it was folly to think that when he did take human form, he was killed. And worse, he allowed himself to be killed! Christianity is a strange religion in that it worships a God who willingly sacrificed himself.

I think that the Cross must be central to Christian preaching, but we must follow the Gospels and emphasize why Jesus died, not how.  The scandal of the cross is not the violence of the act, but the subversiveness of God making the ultimate sacrifice to atone for sin.

5 thoughts on “John 19:18 – “They Crucified Him…”

  1. I really like what you said about how the gospel writers were focused on the why Jesus was crucified rather than the how. Sometimes, I feel like we are believers can get too focused on what happened to Jesus in the crucifixion, that we miss the fact that He rose from the dead! I have seen a lot of cross necklaces, but where are the ones have the empty tomb. You have not have one without the other, but the other is missing from our focus.
    I think that very much apply to our life when we are dealing with the how and the why.
    When we look at the how in our spiritual life, we will see a delay in growth with the Lord.
    For example, when I felt a nudge in my spirit to go to Guyana, I became frustrated and worried that I would not get the time off of work and that I would not have the money to go. I became so obsessed with figuring out the details of the trip durning that first month, that I lost the joy of going. Thankfully, the Lord gently corrected my thinking and started to remind me why He called me to go.
    When we draw our attention to the why, in any part of our lives, we will be encouraged.

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  2. I never realized that John’s gospel never described the crucifixion. Growing up hearing the story from three other gospels and then also people telling you what happened during the crucifixion, it never crossed my mind that the gospel itself never explains it. I would agree with this blog in saying that people today tend to focus on the gore and details of the crucifixion rather than the reason the crucifixion happened at all. Reading through the gospel of John, the author is continually pointing everything Jesus does to him being the Messiah and redeemer, including his death on the cross. I think it is very wise and important than that he did not go into any more physical detail about the death of Jesus but focused on the spiritual because this is what is truly important as seen stated at the end of the gospel in verse 21:25. The fact that Jesus’s death can save people’s souls past this life is so important that the details of the actual brutality of the death don’t matter. John wants his readers to understand what the actions behind Jesus’s death mean for all of humanity and that his death determines our lives after we die, the outcome changes whether or not we believe in his death and resurrection.
    I would say though that there is an element of understanding the meaning behind a death on a cross within the culture at the time would be beneficial to understanding the character of Christ in his death. As pointed out, the cross was considered the most humiliating and shameful way to die. If this is the case, then understanding that Jesus went willingly shows us that Jesus endured the worst form of death imagined for the sake of love. This makes Philippians 2:8 make more sense when it says, “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”. The idea of God loving humanity so much to take our form and die for us, in a way that is considered too horrible to talk about, is almost too much to comprehend. This is why understanding the brutality of Jesus’s death shows his character, but we must not dwell on its gruesomeness but rather the joy that comes out of it.

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  3. I actually wrote about the crucifixion of Jesus at length in my last essay. In this contemporary church age, the cross is talked about with such flippancy that many people have gone to the other extreme and tried to describe the literal process in detail. The writers of the New Testament did neither of these things. They simply, as stated in the above essay, focused on why Jesus would willing submit to such a heinous death. Of course Jesus had to die–but death on a cross? That seems too cruel, too out of place; the Greeks thought it was simply foolish. Jesus is all-knowing and omnipotent, so couldn’t He have simply entered humanity at a different time, one that was a bit more humane with their execution process? Perhaps. Or perhaps Jesus was proving to us that the suffering on this earth is not worthy to be compared to heaven. When He was executed, even though He was suffering, Jesus was not dwelling upon that fact. He was thinking of the glory He once had that would be restored back to Him after His mission was accomplished. As the agony pressed on, with each moment that passed, He was closer to completing the will of His Father; in other words, He was closer to heaven, His home. Kostenberger argues in his book that without the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus cannot be separated. They were both in the will of the Father, and without both elements, there would be no salvation. So, let us not shy away from the topic of crucifixion, but rather embrace it as our salvation and destiny. There is great joy set before us.

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  4. Initially reading this article, I didn’t know if I agreed with the idea of more graphic depictions of the crucifixion being wrong or inappropriate but after thinking about it, I totally understand this point. I do think that because our American culture is significantly more removed from the practice of crucifixion, there is benefit in learning just how awful Christ’s death really was but if the topic is dwelt upon, we do lose the “why” of the crucifixion. I think that guilt can even creep in sometimes when the event of the crucifixion is focused on more than the “why”. Like, “Jesus endured that for YOUR SIN.” That would make me feel super awful if I were a non-believer hearing that taken out of an eternal context!

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  5. A lot of the time when there is talk or a film on the crucifixion the main thing I remember from it is how much pain that Jesus must have went through, but that was not the main idea that John was trying to get across. John and the rest of the gospels were more focused on why Jesus was crucified rather than how. I never thought about how when the leader of your religion is crucified it pretty much means that your religion was wrong, at least in the eyes of everyone else. And the fact that Jesus willingly accepted his crucifixion makes it seem stranger that people would want to follow a man like Jesus. This brings up a key point of Christianity, that we need to focus on Jesus and eternity with the father, as having a “popular” worldly belief is not the goal. John wrote about who Jesus truly was, and telling mainly the story of the journey of how Jesus reached the day of crucifixion and not focusing on the extreme pain and suffering that He endured shows more about who He was. Jesus did not only accept His death, but He chose it by not fighting it, and that is true worship for our Father. I find it interesting that some of the people who were looking for Jesus to arrest him were Jews, and they are the ones who would be most insulted by his coming and being crucified as a common criminal.

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