During the Easter season, we usually hear again the stories of the Passion Week and the Crucifixion—Jesus’s betrayal by Judas, His unfair trial, the road to Calvary, Jesus’s last words. We also sing about the Old Rugged Cross. But few look beyond these stories to consider what our Lord Jesus Christ actually endured during those hours on the cross. Unlike first-century Christians, for whom crucifixion was a familiar reality, most of us have a sanitized view of our Lord’s suffering.
The physical suffering that Jesus willingly endured was beyond horrific. To better understand the extent of His suffering is to get a glimpse of His love for us.
In the Garden
The suffering began soon after the Last Supper when Jesus and His disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane. Knowing that the time of His death was near, Jesus prayed intently. According to Luke 22:44, “Being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
Medical literature documents that bloody sweat, known as hematidrosis, does occur. This condition is seen in rare instances of extreme emotional stress. The resulting blood loss is not severe, but it does cause the skin to be exquisitely tender, making what was to come even more painful.
During His Trials
After these hours of emotional distress in the garden, Jesus was betrayed and arrested. His captors mocked and beat Him after He faced the Sanhedrin and the Roman authorities. He was ultimately sentenced to crucifixion on a cross.
Before sentencing Jesus to death, Pilate attempted to appease the Jews by having Him beaten. John 19:1 notes, “So then Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him.” However, this brief description does not communicate the brutal nature of what was to follow.
Scourging was a particularly vicious form of punishment. The victim was stripped of his clothes, and his hands were raised above his head and tied to a post. Then one or two soldiers would repeatedly beat the victim with a whip, usually made of several leather strips with jagged pieces of iron or sheep bone tied onto them.
One blow after another was delivered across the shoulders, back, and buttocks. Initial blows ripped gashes into His already tender skin, and those that followed dug deeper into our Savior’s tissues, tearing muscles and blood vessels. The subsequent blood loss further weakened Him. Torn and exposed nerves on the back caused indescribable pain.
This brutal scourging was only the beginning of Jesus’s suffering.
This brutal scourging was only the beginning of Jesus’s suffering. After being untied from the blood-stained scourging post, the soldiers placed a scarlet robe on Him. Each breath, each movement of His body, caused the robe to rub against His torn flesh. Then a crown of thorns was placed on His head. As the trained Roman soldiers beat Him, these thorns drove deeper into His head, causing profuse bleeding and intense pain. Later, the scarlet robe was torn from His back, reopening the deep wounds.
How horrible was Jesus’s suffering at this point? Isaiah 52:14 says, “Just as many were astonished at you, so His visage was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men.” Jesus had been so severely beaten, He no longer looked like a human being.
To the Cross
Jesus was then led to Calvary. In His weakened physical condition He was apparently unable to carry His crossbeam to the place of crucifixion. Simon, a Cyrenian, bore the crossbeam for Him. Nonetheless, each step must have been agonizing, as the jarring aggravated the pain in the open wounds on Jesus’s back.
On arrival at the crucifixion site, the soldiers laid Jesus on His back against the crossbeam. As His back and shoulders rubbed against the beam, the wood must have dug into the open wounds, intensifying His pain. Next, the soldiers stretched His arms out and nailed His hands to the cross.
As they raised the crossbar and placed it upon the upright post of the cross, the jolt must have caused unimaginable agony. Then His knees were flexed and His feet placed one on top of the other. In a typical crucifixion, a nail was then driven though the feet, fixing them to the cross.
At this point every movement of Jesus’s body would bring pain. The weight of the body pulling on the outstretched hands, pain shooting through the arms and shoulders, the weight of the body pushing down on the nailed feet—all intensified the agony.
In addition to the intense pain, victims of crucifixion experienced great difficulty breathing. Normally when you breathe, the ribs raise then passively recoil downward as you breathe out. But if your arms are outstretched and the full weight of your body is hanging down, the ribs would be elevated at all times. The natural recoil is difficult to achieve on the cross.
As a result, the victim has to work both to inhale and exhale. Breathing out would require Jesus to push up on His feet nailed to the cross, causing extreme pain. As blood loss continued and pain took its toll on the body, breathing became progressively more difficult.
To hasten the death of those condemned to the cross, soldiers often broke the legs of their victims. This resulted in suffocation. In fulfillment of prophecy, though, the soldiers did not need to break Jesus’s legs because He had died just a few hours after being placed on the cross.
Blood and Water
“But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.”—John 19:34 (KJV)
The water in this verse has generated much discussion among both the medical and the lay communities. Just what is the source of this water?
The blood is easy to explain. The soldier pierced Christ’s side with a spear. Although Scripture does not clearly say which side was penetrated, most believe this wound was in the chest because the Greek word used (pleura) refers to the thorax. Also, a killing thrust would most likely be delivered to the chest rather than the abdomen. So the heart, pulmonary vessels, or even the aorta could be the source of the blood.
But what about the water? Some have suggested a miracle, but this explanation seems inadequate. If the water was a miracle, what was its purpose? How was God glorified though this event? No, a miracle seems unlikely.
This fluid may have come from around the lungs or around the heart. A spear piercing the side would pass through the pleural cavity, releasing any fluid that had accumulated there during this ordeal. Also, this killing thrust would most likely have been aimed at the heart (whether from the right or the left side), and thus would have entered the pericardial sac on its course. Perhaps a pericardial effusion was the source of the water described.
Some commentators have suggested that the water was actually ascites (fluid in the abdominal cavity) or even urine. This would require that the wound be in the abdomen, possibly piercing the bladder. While one cannot be dogmatic on this issue, the wording of the verse seems to indicate a wound to the chest. Therefore, the weight of evidence points away from the possibility of the abdomen.
Also, the wording of the verse does not necessarily mean that the blood was seen first. Often the word order indicates the prominence of one item over another. So it is entirely possible that the volume of blood was much greater than the volume of water (which seems very likely), so blood is mentioned first.
The Cause of Death
Jesus chose to die. He willingly gave up His life when His work was done.
Much has been written on the exact medical cause of Jesus’s death. The possibilities include cardiac rupture, asphyxiation, cardiac arrhythmia, and hypovolemic shock. However, a close examination of Scripture gives the proper answer to this question. John 10:17–18 tell us, “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”
When Jesus had fulfilled all on the cross, John 19:30 tells us, “He said, ‘It is finished!’ And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.”
It usually took two to five days for a person to die by crucifixion. Jesus died in only a few hours. Why the difference? The reason is simply that Jesus chose to die. He willingly gave up His life when His work was done.
We would all do well to remember that at any point Jesus could have stopped the terrible torture that He suffered. He endured it because He loves us, despite our unworthiness.
As horrible as His physical suffering was, we must understand that it paled in comparison to the suffering He endured in His heart, as He took upon Himself the sins of the world and was separated from His Father. That is indeed love beyond compare.