Is The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ a Historical Fact?
The Historical Event of Jesus Christ’s Death
Sometimes when we study Bible doctrine, we forget that our doctrine is based upon historical events. The doctrine of sin is founded on the actual event of Adam’s sin. The doctrine of salvation is founded on the historical fact of the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul taught that Christ died (history) for our sins (theology) (1 Cor. 15:3).
The Final Meal
The night began with the celebration of the Passover and the eating of the Passover meal. As the disciples gathered with Jesus, he took it upon himself to wash his disciples’ feet and teach them humility (John 13:1-20). As they ate, he announced his betrayal and made his last appeal to Judas Iscariot, the financial secretary of the group, who would betray him (John 13:21-29).
That night Jesus introduced the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17-20) and gave them the Upper Room discourse, which contained the embryonic teachings of the church age, including a life of love, fruitfulness, yet persecution. Right up to the end, Jesus was involved in the training of the twelve.
The Final Journey
Jesus left the upper room and walked with his disciples as a group for the last time. They headed for the Mount of Olives. This group which had traveled together for over three years, had already begun to break up. Judas had gone to arrange for the soldiers to arrest Jesus. Together, those that remained made their way to a favorite spot for prayer. Perhaps it was seeing the vines climbing the side of a building that prompted Jesus to say, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1).
With this observation, he taught his disciples about the abiding life (John 15). Recognizing the sorrow they would soon experience, he told his disciples he would send the “Comforter” (John 16). Together they arrived in the garden to pray.
The Garden Prayers
Jesus prayed for many things. He prayed for the events he would soon be experiencing. He prayed for the accomplishment of the will of God in his life. He prayed for his disciples and those who would someday become his disciples. He prayed for those of us today who seek to live for him in our society. Finally, he prayed for himself. He understood the wrath of the cup of judgment he was to drink in death. “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39, 42, 44). When he finished, he woke his disciples to witness his arrest.
The Arrest of Christ
As the soldiers and religious leaders accompanied Judas Iscariot to the garden, Jesus was waiting. Knowing what was happening, he called Judas his “friend” (Matt. 26:50). He was taken with force despite offering no resistance. The only act on his part was to heal a servant’s ear which had been cut off by one of his disciples (John 18:1-12). Jesus willingly submitted to those he knew had come to kill him. He was about his Father’s business.
The night was filled with mock trials to humiliate the Son of God. He appeared before the high priest, who judged him guilty before being arrested. Then Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin (the ruling body of the Jews) that had arranged his arrest. He was sent to Pilate, the Roman military leader, who questioned Jesus and then sent him to Herod. After interrogating Jesus, Herod returned Jesus to the original Roman judge, Pilate. Being found innocent in a Roman court of law, the mob vote of the people suggested the method of punishment. Before the crucifixion, he was beaten by the soldiers.
Crucifixion was abhorred in the mind of every Roman subject. Roman soldiers had learned from the Phoenicians a very sadistic and painful way of executing criminals. The word “cross” would stimulate a repulsion by anyone who witnessed this event.
Crucifixion usually began with a beating. A man would be lashed with a whip with bits of metal, bone, or stone at the end of each thong. As it cut the back of the convicted man, the whip would wrap around him. It would tear the flesh when raised to be lowered again. Often a condemned man would faint from the pain.
Bearing One’s Cross
The second aspect of the crucifixion was the custom known as “bearing one’s cross.”
The written-out accusation would be tied about his neck, and he would be paraded to the place of execution. The shingle he wore would be nailed above him on his cross, so those who witnessed the event knew his horrendous crime. Jesus’ crime was published in three languages and read, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (Matt. 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).
Agony on the Cross
The third aspect of crucifixion was agony leading to death. A man was crucified so that he could not easily breathe. His arms and feet were fastened to the cross so that he had to push his body up to breathe. Every time Jesus would breathe, he had to raise his body to gasp for air.
As he reached for air, he would scrape the open wounds on his back up and down the rough wood of the cross. The Romans knew their craft. They could execute a man and let him suffer for nine days until he died. And besides the physical suffering, there was the degrading humiliation.
When the soldiers came by to break Jesus’ legs to speed up his death, they found a lifeless body. A spear thrust into his side produced blood and water. A friend of Jesus was granted permission to bury the body in his tomb. Jesus was anointed with spices and placed in the borrowed tomb. There he stayed for three days.
A key to understanding the death of Christ is to recognize the resurrection of Christ. The focus of Christianity is not a crucifix but rather an empty cross and an empty tomb. Christ died but lives today.
John begins his Gospel by arguing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Describing Jesus when he became a man, John wrote, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Therefore, the kenosis was a self-emptying, not a self-extinction on the part of Christ.