Matthew 27:24-50
 Images of the Cross

American Journal of Biblical Theology     April 1, 2007
Copyright 2007, J.W. Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


The Last Supper, DaVinci                        

Imagine for a moment that you are taken back in time to that dark Friday afternoon when Christ was crucified. You are standing at the rear of the crowd, and you are able to see the Roman guards coming up the narrow street leading out of the city. They are guarding the three who are to be crucified. You hear the shout of the guard as he demands a spectator to carry the cross of one of the prisoners. It seems that this prisoner's appearance is much different from the others.  He is so bloodied and beaten he does not look human.   While the crowd is shouting insults and spitting on the prisoners, they are led up to a hill outside of the city gates where the prisoners are then crucified. There are three. Two of the prisoners are tied to their crosses as is normally done. However, the third prisoner is treated with particularly unnecessary brutality, held to the cross by large nails pounded through his wrists and feet. As this is taking place, the sky is growing ever darker.  There is a sudden chill in the air that instills a deep shiver.   You can feel that this is no ordinary Roman execution.

It was a sunny Spring afternoon (very unusual in central Upstate New York) when I was driving out of New Hartford on Middle Settlement Road towards the village of Floyd to lead our association of churches in a scheduled praise and singing service.   My eyes were suddenly diverted to what was literally a visual snapshot of a small cemetery on the west side of the road. Only about 60 feet across at the road, the cemetery went back several hundred, giving the appearance of a bowling alley. What caught my attention was a single shrine located about half-way back. It was a life-size stone sculpture of the crucifix. This is not an unusual sight in this upstate New York community where the Catholic church claims about 65% of the local population as its members. The population is predominantly from Italian, Russian and Eastern European origin.

Something about this crucifix really caught my attention. First of all, it was painted. Most crucifixes are fabricated from a solid material and unadorned. Second, the appearance of Christ on the Cross was rather vivid. The skin color was an unblemished light flesh with a little spattering of blood on the palms, on the feet, on the sword-wound on the side, and a slight dripping of blood under a crown of thorns.

What struck me was the tragic error of this image.  My mind was filled with example after example of how such images have led to a misunderstanding of what took place at Golgotha, and how this misunderstanding has minimized the impact of the event in our hearts.  The opportunity I had to ponder this image for the remaining twenty minutes of the drive shaped the praise service as we focused on the truth of what Jesus did for us on the day in which He was crucified.

I was reminded of the third commandment recorded in the book of Exodus:

Exo 20:4.  Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:

Ancient people, as well as many today, had a tendency to give the authority or power of a living soul to objects, a process referred to as animism.  The ancient Jews were instructed to refrain from making such idols.  What has this commandment to do with sculptures, paintings, and other artwork which depict the life, ministry and atoning death of Jesus?

1. None of the artwork is accurate. Unlike other leaders of His day, Jesus was never depicted in any paintings or sculptures.  The early church was predominantly Jewish, and as such, took Exodus 20:4 quite seriously.  Those who placed their faith in Jesus would not be inspired to replicate His image.  Those who did not place their faith in Jesus would have no interest in doing so.  However, scripture does provide us with a glimpse of His appearance.

Isa. 53:2.  For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

Isaiah describes Jesus as having an appearance that is withered and without attractiveness, without beauty, plain and homely.  He was so plain that no one would desire him based upon his appearance.  Artwork that depicts Jesus without fail will provide an image of a man who is very handsome to those within the culture of the artist.  However, we may be reminded that Jesus, the Messiah and Creator, came to earth in the most humble of human circumstances, and his plain appearance would fit the context of that purpose.  However, though Jesus appearance would have been plain and unremarkable, Jesus heart held a love that is beyond our comprehension, a heart that would have been evident in his manner and expression.  Consequently, I believe that to look into Jesus' eyes would be amazing.

2. Since all artwork is intrinsically inaccurate, we can and will draw incorrect conclusions from it.  One current example of such dramatic error is the controversy over DaVinci's painting entitled, The Last Supper.  Critics of the gospel are using the painting to draw heretical conclusions pertaining to Jesus life and ministry, fully ignorant of the fact that there is nothing in the painting that even resembles the setting of a first-century Passover.  Even the room in which the painting is set is simply the room in which DaVinci was sitting when he produced the work, a palatial Italian 15th century hall.  At best, the painting is an attempt at placing twelve men, clothed in first-century garb, into a 15th century setting.

Many films have been produced that have attempted to portray Jesus and His passion, including the recent "The Passion of the Christ" produced by Mel Gibson.  These attempts at portrayal all suffer from the DaVinci effect, in that the only images we can produce are those that come from our set of assumptions as we fill in details that are not clearly presented in scripture.  Our set of assumptions usually ignore the actual historical and cultural details of the first-century, creating conclusions that are both inaccurate and misleading.

3. No artwork can fully display God's glory. All we can do is make a cheap imitation that attempts to portray a small part of what we visualize when we perceive what to us is an image of Christ.

It may be wise to put away the visual images that we have received from sculptures, paintings, movies, and other art forms, and try to see those images only from a scriptural perspective as given to us from the only source of truth, the Word of God.  The image we will see of Jesus' passion, when seen only through scripture, should fill the canvas of our mind with much more meaning and significance than any artwork has ever portrayed.  When we do this, it is important that we employ all we know about the ancient language, history and culture that surrounded these events.

Matt. 27:24-25

When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. 25Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. 

What had taken place up to this point?

Let's note for a moment who Jesus is.

John 1:1-4.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2The same was in the beginning with God. 3All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

John 1:14.  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.

Heb 1:1-3a.  God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, 2Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; 3Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person.

If someone from outside the context of the historical setting were to view what was happening, these circumstances would appear highly illogical. We have here the very God of creation, the Christ, the Messiah being humbly subjected by vile and wicked men to torture and death.  In a culture where gods had power over men, the ability of men to overpower God is an unfathomable paradox.  This paradox still vexes many today to the point of hardheartedness and unbelief.

Matt. 27:26.

Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.

What is stated here is simple and short. There is little need for an in-depth discussion in the scripture because first-century Roman culture was only too acquainted with the treatment referred to as scourging or flogging.  The instrument of torture is a short cluster of whips, perhaps three feet in length. Similar to a whip that is referred to as a cat-o-nine-tails, each strand of leather has a sharp piece of bone or metal attached to the end of it. When struck across the body it would tear off the upper layer of skin in a strip several inches wide, causing pain and profuse bleeding. This treatment is where the phrase "beat within an inch of your life" comes from.  The Romans knew from considerable experience how far they could go before the victim would die.

How many times was the Messiah struck with the whip? Historically, the punishment specified thirty lashings. This exposes the first error in most illustrations of the cross.  His back and chest was entirely covered with deep, bleeding bruises and lacerations that resulted from the scourging process.  His torso would be a mass of blood.  Jesus was brutalized to the point of death long before the crucifixion.  Consequently, His body bore far more bloody scars than those on the hands, side, and feet that we so quickly assume.

Matt. 27:27-30.

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers. 28And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. 29And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews! 30And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head.

The writer of the gospel of Luke includes other details: The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating Him.

Luke 22:64-65.  And when they had blindfolded him, they struck him on the face, and asked him, saying, Prophesy, who is it that smote thee? 65And many other things blasphemously spake they against him.

It is clear that the Roman guards took particular vengeance on this one prisoner who was different from most they dealt with. What about Him was so different that it taunted them into treating Him so cruelly?

Isaiah 53:7.  He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.

The Roman guards received great enjoyment at seeing a prisoner beg for mercy, to hear their screams of pain and torture.  Jesus was silent.  This would only infuriate the Romans into intensifying the brutality of the beating in order to get a reaction out of their prisoner.  Yet, Jesus still remained silent.  Jesus was beaten on the head with the staff while the thorns encircled it, driving the thorns into his head.  They also covered his face and beat on it with their fists mocking his ability to prophesy.

Isaiah 50:6.  I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting.

It that was not enough, they removed the covering of his face and pulled out his beard.  Again, this was not an unusual preparation for the crucifixion.  The results of that beating were evident to all who saw him come up the road leading to Golgotha.

Isaiah 52:14-15.  As many were astonished at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men: 15So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.

When Jesus struggled to walk the road to Golgotha, he had been so badly beaten that he did not even appear human.  Again, our artwork falls tragically short in depicting the intensity of the torture that Jesus endured.  Even Mel Gibson's brutal depiction in The Passion of the Christ is a pale representation.  True images would injure our sensitivities and would not be politically correct.  We could not place such images on the walls of our Sunday School rooms, or in our homes.  So, our interpretation of the event has been simplified and cleansed.  Our true appreciation for what Jesus did for us is likewise diminished.

Matt. 27:31-32.

And after that they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him. 32And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross. 

Why, do you suppose that a spectator was called to carry Jesus' cross, yet no reference is made that the other two prisoners received this service?  Since Jesus had been so severely beaten, he surely had lost a large amount of blood already. The Romans were experts at exacting the maximum amount of torture from a prisoner.  They knew that He was so weak that he probably would not have survived the trip up the hill if he also had to carry the pentabulum (the horizontal bar of the cross).  The Romans would have missed out on the bloodthirsty and violent execution yet to come.  They would have also, by over-doing the beating, been subject to crucifixion themselves if they did not follow the orders to crucify the prisoner.  It was important to the Romans that Jesus made His way to Golgotha successfully.

Matt. 27:33.

And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, a place of a skull, 34They gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink.

The Romans wanted to get the maximum pleasure out of watching the suffering, and prior to the crucifixion they offered Jesus a mixture of vinegar and gall, a mixture that would deaden his senses.  Jesus preferred to keep a clear mind through this experience.

The manner of Christ's crucifixion was particularly gruesome. Rather than being tied to the cross as was normally done, he was first laid down on the pentabulum, and his arms were stretched across it as far as they would reach.  Large nails were then driven though His wrists, through very sensitive nerves, one of the most painful points in the body.  Then, they lifted the pentabulum high above the vertical pole, dragging his weight on those tortured wrists, and then they dropped the hollowed center of the pentabulum onto the pointed vertical pole, making a cross.  The dropping of the pentabulum would have created excruciating pain.  The base of the pentabulum had a small, slanted, platform where the prisoner's feet would rest.  In order to intensify the pain, and disable the prisoner's ability to support himself and relieve pressure on the hands, his feet were nailed to that platform.  Now all of his weight would rest in those nails.

Standing in this position was pure torture since he could not relieve the pain by either pulling himself up by the hands or lifting himself up with his legs. Some of those there, knowing the agony of this ordeal offered him gall, a poisonous herb that killed pain.  Prisoners who were tortured in this way would ultimately die from suffocation because of an inability to lift their diaphragm, taking in air.

Matt. 27:34-45

And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots. 36And sitting down they watched him there; 37And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS. 38Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left. 39And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, 40And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. 41Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, 42He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. 43He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. 44The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth. 45Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.

As great as the torture and agony were, the greatest agony was yet to come.

Matt. 27:46-49.

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? 47Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calleth for Elias. 48And straightway one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink. 49The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him.

What prompted Jesus to say this?  A few words from a scripture passage can often be used to refer to the entire passage.  By quoting from Psalm 21:1, Jesus was revealing one of the most amazing passages of prophesy in scripture: a detailed description of His own crucifixion, written by none other than King David.

Psalm 22:1.  My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?

From the fall of Adam, man has continued in his nature of sin with no hope of atonement. Throughout the Old Testament we see practices of offerings of blood raised to atone for sins. However, no sin which was willfully committed was atonable in this manner. The blood offerings given in the Old Testament were as a prophesy to the final blood offering that was to take place on the cross, and only through that offering was the atoning for willful sin available.

Example: Note that when David sinned by taking Bathsheba as his adulterous wife, and murdering her husband he did not revert to any form of sacrifice to atone for it. He knew there was none. He pleaded with God not to leave him and to restore to him the joy of the salvation he previously knew.

The passage in Psalm 22 makes references to the crucifixion, the mocking, the dividing of the garments, the brutality that yet broke no bones, how His life poured out of Him through dehydration and the loss of blood and fluid,

When Christ hung on the cross, Jesus experienced a sensation that he had never experienced for all of eternity, and never will again. As part of the Godhead, he was in constant communication with the Father, and was constantly filled with the Holy Spirit. He was part of the Godhead throughout eternity. However, at this point in created time, He took upon himself the vicarious blood sacrifice that would be given for all of mans' sins for all time past, present and future, and as such was receiving in Himself the full penalty for that sin.

What is the penalty for sin? Separation from God. Jesus must have felt a loneliness and abandonment beyond anything we can comprehend. This made the burden of the sin he carried far more painful than any of the physical torture he had received. Because of the intensity of that physical torture, Jesus did not survive on the cross very long. After three hours he died while the other prisoners watched.  Yet, this quote of Psalm 22 by Jesus also points to its conclusion, not one of despair, but one of praise:

Psalm 21:25-30.  My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him.   26The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the LORD that seek him: your heart shall live for ever.   27All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.  28For the kingdom is the LORD’S: and he is the governor among the nations.  29All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul.  30A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.  31They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.

Some may have misunderstood Jesus' statement on the cross.  Many teachers and preachers are confused by Jesus' apparent feelings of despair, unable to resolve the conflict of such an emotion with what we know about Jesus true nature of deity.  What we are missing is an understanding of the full context of Jesus' statement.  Jewish culture had developed around the scriptures, and a reference to the first verse of a Psalm communicated the entire Psalm to its hearers.  To consider Jesus' statement, we have to read the entire Psalm.  When we do we find Jesus describing, not the pain and despair of the torture, but the victory that is about to come.  He is declaring that this event is a fulfillment of David's prophesy, and He is describing how this event will bring righteousness to all people who will follow Him.  Jesus' words were not words of despair, they were words of victory.

Matt. 27:50.

Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.

The focus of this passage is the significance of the torture experienced by Jesus. We will probably never really comprehend the gravity of that torture and the pain and suffering Jesus humbly bore on our behalf.

What would your response be to someone who gave their life to save yours?

What would your response be to someone who suffered in this manner and died to save your eternal life?

God did not call His people to join a Christian social club. What have we been called to do?

1. Be saved:

Rom 10:9.  That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

2. Be ministers of the Gospel.

1 Pet 2:9.  But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

3.  Make Disciples.

As His ministers we are all to use the abilities he has given us for the furtherance of his kingdom. As our last reference, take a look at the commission we have received:

Mat 28:18-20. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. 19Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

  • go and make disciples of all nations,
  • baptizing (immersing) them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and
  • teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

When we witness the images of Christ let us never forget the gravity of his suffering and the responsibility we have to the Lord to be his ministers, seeking to grow in the knowledge of him, and seeking to be better used by Him for God's own glory and purpose.