By Peter Amsterdam
March 29, 2022
All four Gospels give an account of Jesus’ death on the cross.1 While each of these passages covers the same event, the four authors tell the story in their own ways. This article and upcoming articles about Jesus’ crucifixion will be generally based on the Gospel of Matthew, while including points from the other Gospels as well.
After Jesus’ trial, Pilate decided to meet the demands of the chief priests and the elders, so he freed Barabbas, who was incarcerated for insurrection and murder. He then delivered Jesus over to their will.2 In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, we are told that before delivering Jesus to the chief priests, Pilate had Jesus whipped. The NLT Bible says: So Pilate released Barabbas to them. He ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip, then turned him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified.3
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters [called the Praetorium in some translations], and they gathered the whole battalion before him.4
The governor’s soldiers were members of the Roman military. From this point forward, Jesus was no longer under the control of the Jewish Sanhedrin; the Roman authorities would carry out His death sentence. Some Bibles translate battalion as a cohort or regiment. The battalion that gathered before Him could have been as many as 600 soldiers, or more likely 200, as both numbers of soldiers are sometimes referred to as a cohort. The soldiers at the governor’s headquarters gathered to amuse themselves by mocking Jesus.
And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him…5
Since Jesus had been convicted of claiming to being a king, the soldiers used that theme as they mocked Him before His crucifixion. They started by taking off His clothes and replacing them with a scarlet robe. Scarlet was close to the color purple, which was the color royalty wore.
…and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand.6
Since kings wore crowns, the soldiers fashioned some type of spiny plant into a crown. This crown not only mocked His kingship, but also added to His suffering and pain. As kings held royal scepters, the soldiers put a “scepter,” probably a piece of cane, perhaps bamboo or something similar, in His hand.
And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head.7
While the Gospels of Mark and John join Matthew in relating that the soldiers mockingly greeted Jesus with “Hail, King of the Jews,” only the Gospel of Matthew tells of them mocking Him by kneeling before Him while doing so. Besides verbally mocking Him, they showed their contempt by spitting on Him. One author explains: When spitting and repeated blows are added, the scene combines cruelty with extreme dishonor.8
And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.9
We’re not told how long the mocking lasted, but when it ended, the soldiers took off the robe they had put on Him and put His own clothes back on Him. Those who were crucified by the Romans were usually naked, so putting Jesus’ clothes back on while He walked to the place of crucifixion was likely a concession to Jewish reluctance about public nudity. None of the Gospels tell us whether the crown of thorns was removed, but it seems that it probably wasn’t; as if it had been, it likely would have been mentioned specifically, as the removal of the robe was.
While there were many soldiers in the governor’s headquarters during Jesus’ interrogation, when they led him away to crucify him, it is likely that only a few escorted Him to the place of crucifixion. Normally only four soldiers were assigned to crucify a man.10
As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross.11
Each of the Gospels speak of Jesus carrying the cross. The three synoptic Gospels12 tell of Simon, a man from Cyrene (present-day Libya), who helped Jesus carry the cross, while the Gospel of John doesn’t mention him.
There were three types of crosses generally used in executions: the crux decussata, which was shaped like an X; the crux commissa, which was in the shape of a (capital) T; and the crux immissa, which was shaped like a (lowercase) t. It is likely that the crux immissa was the shape of Jesus’ cross, as we’ll see later that they hung a sign over His head,13 which wouldn’t have been possible with an X- or T-shaped cross.
When carrying the cross (crux immissa), the convicted person didn’t carry the whole cross, but only the crossbeam. The vertical beam was left standing in the ground, usually in a prominent place like a public square or just outside the city walls, as a warning and deterrent to breaking the law. When carrying the crossbeam, the one to be crucified would carry it behind the nape of his neck, with his hands hooked over it.
It is likely that Simon, the man from Cyrene, was compelled by the Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross because they saw that Jesus was too weak to carry the cross to the place of execution. They preferred to have Him alive on the cross rather than dying on the way.
In the Gospel of Luke we are told of Jesus speaking to the women who were mourning.
And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”14
Amongst the large group of people following Jesus to the place where He would be crucified were women who mourned and wailed for Him. Jesus calls them “daughters of Jerusalem,” which indicates that they were probably city dwellers rather than Galileans who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover.
In spite of His suffering and impending death, Jesus paused to warn the mothers and children of Jerusalem of what lay ahead for them in the near future, when the Romans would come and decimate the city and its inhabitants, due to the sins of the nation and their rejection of their Savior. Life would become so hard that not having any children would be considered a blessing—in contrast with the normal view that children are a blessing, a gift from God.
The coming capture and destruction of Jerusalem would be so terrible that the inhabitants of the city would want their lives to end quickly, as death would be preferable to the terrible misery they would be facing. They would want the mountains to fall on them and the hills to cover them.
The last verse—For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?—is a difficult verse to explain. Between the three commentators I use for the Gospel of Luke, they give 15 possible interpretations for this verse. One of the commentators concludes that the most likely meaning is: If God has not spared Jesus, how much more will the impenitent nation [Israel in Jesus’ day] not be spared when divine judgment comes?15
(To be continued.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19.
2 Luke 23:25.
3 Matthew 27:26 NLT.
4 Matthew 27:27.
5 Matthew 27:28.
6 Matthew 27:29.
7 Matthew 27:29–30.
8 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1063.
9 Matthew 27:31.
10 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 712.
11 Matthew 27:32.
12 Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
13 Matthew 27:37.
14 Luke 23:27–31.
15 Bock, Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53, 1847.