Jesus' Finest Hour—His Last

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It began Thursday night in the Jewish month of Nisan [April] about a.d. 30. One of Jesus' disciples, Judas Iscariot, planned to betray him for thirty pieces of silver. The deadly signal: a kiss. In the garden of Gethsemane just outside Jerusalem , Jesus knew exactly what was coming, and he was praying. His heart was almost unable to support the weight: “ My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38). Then the mob appeared with swords and clubs. Judas kissed Jesus, and the mob seized him. The disciples of Jesus fled and left him alone.

The Passion of Jesus Before the Jewish Council

Jesus was taken to the Jewish Council, which was ready to put him on trial in the middle of the night. The decisive charge was blasphemy:

The high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)

“Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you? . . . And the guards received him with blows” (Matthew 26:67-68; Mark 14:65).

Meanwhile in the courtyard nearby, his disciple Peter who had said, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Mark 14:31), denied him three times: “I do not know the man!” (Matthew 26:72). When Jesus looked at him across the court, Peter went out and wept bitterly.

The Passion of Jesus Before Pilate and Herod

Then they delivered Jesus to the Roman governor, Pilate, early Friday morning. After interrogation, Pilate sent him to King Herod, who happened to be in town at that time and hoped to see Jesus do a miracle. Herod and his soldiers treated Jesus with contempt, put a royal robe on him in mockery, and sent him back to Pilate.

According to a strange custom, Pilate offered to release a prisoner and gave the crowd the choice between Jesus and Barabbas, a notorious terrorist “who had committed murder in the insurrection” (Mark 15:7). The crowd chose Barabbas and cried out for Jesus to be crucified. They made him out to be an imperial threat who claimed to be a king. “If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). Pilate was cornered. Shall he kill an innocent man, or risk the appearance of sedition?

Pilate made his decision. He washed his hands, in a futile attempt to remove his guilt, then freed Barabbas, and handed Jesus over to the soldiers. “I am innocent of this man's blood” he said (Matthew 27:24). What happened in the next several hours is beyond description or depiction. The mere facts do not tell the whole story. But they are crucial.

Jesus was scourged. The word cannot carry the reality of the torture.

Flogging was a legal preliminary to every Roman execution, and only women and Roman senators or soldiers (except in cases of desertion) were exempt. The usual instrument was a short whip (flagrum or flagellum) with several single or braided leather thongs of variable lengths, in which small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones were tied at intervals. . . . For scourging, the man was stripped of his clothing, and his hands were tied. . . . The back, buttocks, and legs were flogged either by two soldiers (licitors) or by one who alternated positions. . . . It is not known whether the number of lashes was limited to 39, in accordance with Jewish law. 1

After the scourging, the entire battalion of soldiers gathered around this faint and bleeding man, put a scarlet robe on him, pressed the weight of a scarlet robe onto his torn shoulders, set a reed in his right hand, knelt down before him, and mocked him, “Hail, King of the Jews.” They struck him with their hands. They spit on him. They wove a crown out of thorns—probably not the kind of thorns you see on rose bushes, but the longer kind that are more like needles. Then they not only put the crown on his head, but hit him over the head—to drive the thorns into his skull (Mark 15:17-19).

The Passion of Jesus on the Cross

They led him away to the hill called Golgotha (Latin: Calvary) outside the city and nailed him to a cross. Martin Hengel has written the authoritative historical study of crucifixion in the ancient world. He cites Lucius Seneca, in the middle of the first century, who wrote about the variety of crucifixions: “I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet.” 2 Hengel quotes another ancient source (Pseudo-Manetho) about the method of crucifixion: “Punished with limbs outstretched, they see the stake as their fate; they are fastened and nailed to it in the most bitter torment, evil food for bird of prey and grim pickings for dogs” 3 In sum, Hengel says, “ It was an utterly offensive affair, ‘obscene' in the original sense of the word.” 4 And among Jews, divine curse was added to human scandal, because the Jewish law, the Torah, said, “A hanged man [on a tree] is cursed by God” (Deuteronomy 21:23).

“It was the third hour when they crucified him” (Mark 15:25 ). That means 9am. Pilate had ordered a sign over his head: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19 ). Passersby ridiculed him, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40). The soldiers mocked him. The chief priests with the scribes and elders added their scorn, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matthew 27:42). And even the robbers who were crucified with him reviled him.

Jesus drank the cup of suffering unmixed, and refused any pain-deadening anesthetic. “They offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it” (Matthew 27:34). About noon, near the end, he cried out, “‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?' that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” (Matthew 27:46). Amazingly these seemingly hopeless words are the exact words of the beginning of Psalm 22 in the Old Testament, which then resolves into a Psalm of great hope. The poet, who seems to begin with despair, finally exults in God and says, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (verse 22). The early church did not miss the connection between Jesus' agonizing words and the final hope of this psalm. They applied these very words of triumph to Christ after his resurrection (Hebrews 2:12). Yes, there was a kind of God-forsakenness on the cross, but the abandonment was not final.

After three hours on the cross, Jesus died. His disciples saw the awesome, world-changing moment from different angles, and summed it up in different ways. Matthew said, “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). John wrote, “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,' and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30 ). Luke, who was not there, and may have gotten his information from Jesus' mother, wrote, “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!' And having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46 ).

To make sure he was dead, a Roman soldier “pierced his side with a spear” (John 19:34). He was taken down from the cross by his family and friends, and buried in a borrowed, cave-like tomb. Pilate gave orders for the tomb to be sealed and guarded. A great stone was rolled over the mouth of the tomb and guards were stationed. There the body lay until early Sunday morning.

  1. William D. Edwards, et. al., “On the Physical Death of Jesus,” The Journal of the American Medical Association 255 ( 21 March 1986 ), 1457-1458. 

  2. Dialogue 6, De consolatione ad Marciam , 20.3, cited by Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 25. 

  3. Hengel, Crucifixion, 9. 

  4. Ibid., 22.