Spring 2005

Religion and Spirituality

The Gospels for the 21st Century, Part 21

“It Is Finished”

David Hulme

Jesus’ death has been interpreted and portrayed in many ways through the ages. Yet the real story is much more powerful than anything art, literature, television or film has had to offer.

Once the religious and military authorities had captured Jesus of Nazareth in the Garden of Gethsemane, they bound Him and brought Him first to Annas, a powerful former high priest whose son-in-law Caiaphas now held that office. Annas asked questions about Jesus’ teachings and about His disciples. Jesus said that He had spoken openly and that the authorities must ask the public what He had taught. They were the witnesses.

At this, an official hit Jesus in the face, claiming that He was being insolent toward the high priest. Jesus responded, “If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18:23).

Next, Jesus was taken to Caiaphas’s house, where the Sanhedrin, or Council, had been called together. The fact that they were not in an official meeting place suggests that this was a hastily called meeting. They were looking for false evidence so that they could put the young teacher to death. A lot of people came forward, but none gave reason enough, including those who said that Jesus had claimed He would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. The claim was that He said He would replace a man-made structure with one made by God. Of course, He had not said that, and even the false witnesses could not get their testimony to agree.

The high priest asked whether Jesus was going to respond to His accusers. He remained silent until Caiaphas asked Him whether He was the Christ, the Son of God, or not. Jesus said, “Yes, it is as you say. But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). Jesus was simply confirming that He would return one day, and then they would know with certainty who He was.

This was too much for the high priest. He tore his garments in outrage and branded Jesus a blasphemer. Then the others proclaimed Him worthy of death, spat on Him, insulted Him, blindfolded Him, and hit Him with their fists. They asked Him to declare by divine revelation who had just struck Him if He truly was the Son of God.

In Denial

Watching from the courtyard were two of Jesus’ disciples, Peter and John. When a servant girl recognized Peter as one of Jesus’ followers, he immediately denied it. This was the first of three or four denials. Jesus had foretold that Peter would deny Him three times before the cock would crow (Mark 14:30), though the Gospel accounts seem to indicate the possibility of four separate denials.

When Peter went to warm himself by a fire in the courtyard, someone else recognized him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said (Matthew 26:70).

He went to the gateway of the yard, where again he was recognized as a follower of Jesus. This time he declared with an oath that he was not.

A while later, some said that his Galilean accent gave him away. Another said, “Didn’t I see you with him in the olive grove?” This man was a relative of the servant whose ear Peter had severed. Now Peter became angry and cursed, denying that he knew Jesus (Matthew 26:73–74; John 18:26).

At that moment a rooster began to crow, and Jesus turned and looked at Peter. His Master’s words came flooding back: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” This isn’t necessarily a contradiction, however. Jesus’ mention of (at least) three denials does not preclude a fourth.

It was an awful moment for Peter, who had professed that he would even die with Jesus. Now he could only go outside and weep bitter tears.

At daybreak the Sanhedrin formalized their decision to put Jesus to death. They again confirmed from Jesus that He was the Son of God. “You are right in saying I am,” He replied (Luke 22:70).

Judas, the betrayer, was now stricken with fear and a guilty conscience. He knew that Jesus was innocent. He took the blood money back to the chief priests and the elders, but they would have nothing more to do with him. Judas’s remorse was so great that he went away and hanged himself. The religious leaders took the betrayer’s reward and bought a field where strangers would be buried. It became known as the Field of Blood.

Before the Roman Ruler

The trial of Jesus, which had begun in three stages before the Jewish religious authorities, now moved into another phase, also with three stages. This time He was to appear before the political authorities. Early in the morning Jesus was led away to the palace of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

Because the Jews were entering the Passover season, they didn’t want to make themselves ceremonially unclean by entering the house of a gentile, so they met Pilate outside. It was an enormous hypocrisy, since they were already defiled by their condemnation of an innocent man. Pilate wanted to know the accusation against Jesus. The Jewish leaders claimed that Jesus was subverting the nation by opposing the payment of taxes to Rome and by claiming to be the Messiah, a king.

Pilate’s reaction was that the Jews should judge their own people. The religious leaders declined, saying that they were not at liberty to put anyone to death. This, of course, paved the way for the crucifixion.

Pilate asked Jesus whether He was the King of the Jews. He admitted that He was, but not in any conventional sense. He explained that His kingdom was not an earthly one at that time. He acknowledged, however, that the reason He had come into the world was to establish a future kingdom. He said that He came to testify to the truth. At this Pilate showed his cynicism by asking, “What is truth?” (John 18:38).

Jesus said that He came to testify to the truth. At this Pilate showed his cynicism by asking, “What is truth?”

Knowing that there was nothing in the accusation worthy of death, Pilate told the chief priests and the crowd with them that Jesus was innocent. The chief priests continued their accusations, but Jesus would not answer them. His demeanor was such that Pilate was amazed at His resilience.

The religious leaders insisted that Jesus had started a campaign in Galilee and had now brought it to Jerusalem. This gave Pilate an idea. He asked Jesus if He was a Galilean. When he understood that Jesus was under Herod Antipas’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who was in Jerusalem at the time.

Herod had long wanted to meet Jesus. He hoped to see a miracle performed. He had, of course, murdered John the Baptist and refused to repent of his adulterous union with his brother’s wife. But Herod’s interest in Jesus was nothing more than curiosity. That became clear when Jesus would not answer his questions. So Herod and his soldiers mocked Him and sent Him back to Pilate, dressed in a kingly robe. It proved to be a perfect opportunity for Herod and Pilate to become friends—they had been enemies until this incident with Jesus (Luke 23:6–12).

Crucify Him!

It was an annual custom for the Roman ruler to release a prisoner chosen by the crowds. Pilate had already tried a couple of ways to free Jesus and failed. Now he tried a third. There was a man in prison, a murderer named Barabbas, who had led a rebellion. Pilate offered the crowds the choice between Jesus and this man. He must have believed that they would not choose a murderer over a man whom both he and Herod had found innocent. Pilate knew that Jesus was the victim of religious envy. Yet the crowd was incited to demand the release of Barabbas (verses 13–19; Matthew 27:15–18).

Pilate offered the crowds the choice between Jesus and this man. He must have believed that they would not choose a murderer over a man whom both he and Herod had found innocent. 

At that very moment Pilate’s wife sent him a message. She said that she had had a troubling dream about Jesus and implored her husband to have nothing to do with the innocent man (Matthew 27:19).

But the crowd continued to demand the release of Barabbas. Pilate now felt that he had no choice, so he sent Jesus to be flogged. The Roman soldiers plaited a thorny crown and put it on Jesus’ head. They dressed Him in a purple robe, hit Him in the face, and mocked and abused Him.

Again Pilate went to the crowd to protest Jesus’ innocence. Again he asked what should be done with Jesus. The crowd roared for His crucifixion. Pilate nevertheless persisted in trying to release Jesus: “Why?” he asked. “What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him” (Luke 23:22). But the cry for crucifixion went up again.

Pilate told the Jewish leaders, “You take him and crucify him.” He even went back to Jesus to plead with Him for a way out. He asked, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” (John 19:6b–10). Jesus explained to him that he had no power that had not been granted by God.

Again Pilate tried to release Jesus, but to no avail. Now the Roman governor took a bowl of water and washed his hands in front of the crowd to symbolize that he would not be held to account for the death of an innocent man. The crowd willingly took on the responsibility.

Pilate released Barabbas, had Jesus flogged, and handed Him over to be crucified. The Roman soldiers took another opportunity to mock and beat Him as He was dressed again in a purple robe. Then they gave Him back his own clothes and led Him out to a place on the edge of the city, called Golgotha, which means “the place of a skull.” Along the way, a man from Cyrene in North Africa was forced to carry what was probably the crossbeam of Jesus’ crucifixion stake. Jesus had carried it but was now too weak to go on.

When they led Jesus to the place of His death, He was accompanied by two criminals who were also to be executed.

Jesus on the Stake

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is probably one of the most enduring images in Western culture. It has been a continuous subject of art and literature for 2,000 years. Perhaps in the resulting fictionalization it has lost its power and a great deal of its significance for people.

The crucifixion . . . has been a continuous subject of art and literature for 2,000 years. Perhaps in the resulting fictionalization it has lost its power and a great deal of its significance for people.

What exactly do the Gospels tell us about it?

Matthew’s Gospel begins the account with a simple recognition that the act of crucifixion had occurred. He writes, “When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots” (Matthew 27:35). Matthew does not mean that Jesus was dead. He is saying that the nailing of the victim to the cross, or stake, had been carried out, and the condemned was left to die an agonizing death. The four soldiers who were guarding the three men hanging before them were now busy sharing the spoils; all that was left were the clothes of the victims. In Jesus’ case they shared what they could, but His undergarment was seamless. So they cast lots for it rather than tear it apart.

Jesus knew that the soldiers had little understanding of what they were doing in crucifying Him. His attitude toward them was not born of malice. He simply said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This was the first of seven statements that Jesus made during His crucifixion. All of this began to happen at about nine o’clock in the morning.

Jesus’ . . . attitude toward the soldiers was not born of malice. He simply said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” 

Over Jesus’ head, Pilate had ordered that a sign be placed, which read in Aramaic, Latin and Greek, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” The chief priests had objected to Pilate’s wording, but Pilate responded, “What I have written, I have written” (John 19:22).

Many people from Jerusalem were able to read what the sign said as they passed by. A number of them shouted insults at Jesus. The elders and the teachers of the law mocked Him, saying that if He really were the Son of God He would save Himself. The soldiers and even the two robbers crucified with Him began to taunt Him.

One of the two seemed to make worse accusations than the other. The second one was afraid that God would punish them further for insulting an innocent man. He said, “We deserve our punishment, but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41, paraphrased).

He asked Jesus to remember him when the kingdom of God would come. Jesus assured him that the day would come when the robber would be with Him in His kingdom, referred to here as “paradise.”

Standing near the crucifixion was Jesus’ mother, Mary. From the time of His conception she had thought deeply about the unique son she was to raise. Now she stood at the foot of His execution stake. Jesus saw her there with a number of other women, including Mary Magdalene. The disciple John was also standing nearby and watching. Jesus told His mother that she would now have John as a son, and to John He said that he would have a new mother. From then on John took care of Mary.

Death of the Innocent

At noon an unusual darkness fell over the land. It was to last for the next three hours, during which Jesus came to the point of death. At about three o’clock in the afternoon He shouted in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). It was the awful, agonized cry of a human being cut off and separated from God, bearing the penalty for human sin. Jesus was guilty of nothing sinful. He died as an innocent sacrifice in place of every human who has lived, who lives now, or who will live. The death of the Son of God in our stead means that His life was given for ours. We can therefore be forgiven and avoid suffering the death penalty for sin. The enormity of what Jesus was willing to go through so that we could be forgiven and ultimately live forever is often obscured by the fictionalizing of the reality of His crucifixion.

Knowing that the end was near, Jesus said, “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). They gave Him wine vinegar on a sponge at the end of a hyssop stalk. At last He could say, “It is finished” (verse 30). Then with another loud cry He called out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). With this the Savior of humanity bowed His head and breathed His last breath.