The Crucifixion: A Chronological Harmony

The Crucifixion

Led to Golgotha (Matthew 27:31-34; Mark 15:20-23; Luke 23:26-31; John 19:16-17)

            After they mocked Jesus, the soldiers took the purple robe off him and put his own garments back on. You should keep in mind that Jesus was scourged just before the robe was put on him, so the changing of clothing would cause additional pain and damage.

            They led him away to be crucified with him bearing his own cross. John is the only one to mention that Jesus carried his cross, the other three gospels point out that the Romans pulled a man name Simon, from Cyrene, from the spectators forcing him to carry the cross. It was a right of soldiers in Roman to impress into service anyone they chose (see Matthew 5:41). The difference can be resolved in understanding that Jesus started out carrying his cross but along the way Simon was forced to help. It is unknown if Simon took on the entire burden or just helped ease the burden. The wording in Luke causes some to argue for the later. In either case, it is important to see the extent of Jesus’ sufferings, that he wasn’t able to carry a load without aid. Though Jesus was the Son of God, he wasn’t superhuman. He suffered the limitations of human flesh (Hebrews 2:9-15).

            Mark mentions that Simon was the father of two sons, Alexander and Rufus. This implies that these two men were known to others, most probably in the Christian world. Paul mentions a Rufus in Romans 16:13 and an Alexander in I Timothy 1:20. Luke mentions an Alexander in Acts 19:33. Whether these are the sons of Simon is unknown.

            A large crowd of people followed Jesus, two thieves who were also being executed, and the soldiers to the place designated for the crucifixions. In the crowd were women of Jerusalem who wept and mourned for Jesus, showing that even now Jesus had sympathizers among the Jews. Jesus told the women that they should not wept for him but for themselves and their children because terrible days were in store for them. Days were coming when people would think that they would have been happier if they had never had children and they would wish they were dead. These statements are prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus points out that his warning would come to past because if they could kill an innocent man in this time of relative peace, what will happen when the situation gets tense. How will they not resist doing something to cause trouble with the Romans and they decide to take retribution on those who actually deserve it (Proverbs 11:31; I Peter 4:17). Like dry wood it will burst into flames rapidly and intensely.

            The place of execution was called “the Place of the Skull” in Greek or Golgotha in the Hebrew tongue. The English name, “calvary” derives from the Latin word for skull. Death sentences took place outside city limits because of an Old Testament law (Numbers 15:35-36).

            The soldiers tried to give Jesus wine mixed with bitter spices: gall and myrrh, but after tasting it, Jesus refuse to drink it. “This mixture of sour wine mingled with gall and myrrh was intended to dull the sense of pain of those being crucified or otherwise severely punished. The custom is said to have originated with the Jews and not with the Romans. Jesus declined it because it was the Father's will that he should suffer. He would not go upon the cross in a drugged, semi-conscious condition.” [J. W. McGarvey, The Fourfold Gospel, p. 724]. By this we learn that though suffering Jesus chose to experience his torture and death fully. Nothing was held back. Recall that when Peter tried to defend Jesus during the night, Jesus stopped him and pointed out that if he wanted to stop this, he could have done so (Matthew 26:52-54). Jesus always had options. Man was not forcing the Son of God to the cross, though it might appear so on the surface (Hebrews 5:7-9). Jesus wasn’t looking forward to death, he wasn’t eager to meet death, but he understood the necessity of dying. When he went, he faced it fully taking nothing to even dull the pain.

Just Before the Sixth to Ninth Hour (Matthew 27:35-44; Mark 15:24-32; Luke 23:32-43; John 19:18-27)

            You will notice that Mark’s account states that Jesus was crucified at the third hour of the day (Mark 15:25). Yet John’s account mentions that final sentence was delivered about the sixth hour of the day (John 19:14). Three accounts agreed that darkness covered the land from the sixth to the ninth hour (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). There are a few things to note which will make apparent difference harmonize.

1.         People did not have watches in those days. Days were divided into four quarters: third hour, sixth hour, and ninth hour being the dividing lines. A day started at dawn (roughly 6 a.m.), the third hour of the day started about mid-morning (roughly 9 a.m.), the sixth hour started at noon and the ninth hour started at mid-afternoon (roughly 3 p.m.). Most of the time, this is as close as most people kept time. Thus the third hour of the day could go from mid-morning to about noon (or roughly 9 a.m. to noon).

2.          John’s account only says it was about the sixth hour when Pilate sat in judgment. Just before noon would still be about the sixth hour while still technically being in the third hour of the day segment.

3.         There is a textual variation in John 19:14. Several manuscripts have “third” instead of “sixth.” Depending on the style of writing, some manuscripts use a single letter for numbers instead of a whole word. Such can account for a misreading during copying. Most translators, however, lean toward the “sixth” reading.

4.         Some propose that John's account is not talking about the sixth hour of the day, but the sixth hour of trials that Jesus faced. The problem is that "about the sixth hour" is proceeded by stating what day it was instead of the trials. "About the sixth hour" qualifies the day.

I’m inclined to believe that Mark’s account tells us that the crucifixion, including the preparation started during the third hour of the day and John’s account tells us it began in the later part of that time period as it was approaching noon.

            They crucified the Lord along with two thieves. Even as they were pounding nails into his hands and feet and setting up the cross, Jesus was praying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). Here again the compassion of Jesus is shown to us. He is praying for the forgiveness of those killing him because he understood that they did not understand. They did not comprehend who it was they were killing, nor the consequences of his death. But then, if they did, they would not have done it (I Corinthians 2:7-8). Jesus’ prayer was a fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 53:12). “No other religion teaches men to pray for their enemies. No other religion asks men to seek forgiveness of those who do them harm. The world teaches men to seek revenge. “the Christian bears reproaches and persecutions with patience, and prays that God would pardon those who injure them, and save them from their sins.” [Albert Barnes’ New Testament Commentary] Yet, this is what Jesus had taught (Matthew 5:44-48; Romans 12:17-19). It was more than just words; Jesus lived by his teachings.

            Having placed Jesus and the thieves on crosses, one thief on each side with Jesus in the center, the soldiers took his outer garments and divided them into four parts, a part for each soldier. But Jesus’ tunic was seamless, woven in one piece. It was too valuable to tear, so they decided to cast lots for it. Thus without realizing it, they fulfilled prophecy (Psalm 22:18). It seems like such a small thing, almost not worth mentioning, it contains a powerful message. Through this deed we see the callousness of the soldiers who profited from the death of three men while they were dying next to them. But it is the prophecy which should shock us. David’s psalm was written almost a thousand years prior to its fulfillment! Those involved would not have known about the prophecy, nor would they have cared to have helped to bring it about. Yet, God had the power to bring about even this small detail to pass.

            This small detail emphasizes the point that Jesus’ death was not accidental. It was planned by God and fulfilled by Jesus. God had an eternal purpose that Jesus carried out (Ephesians 3:8-12). The Roman soldiers acted just as God had determined (Acts 2:22-23). In this event we see the power of God, His control, and His great knowledge. If God knew this small detail, then He understood all that Jesus would suffer long before any of it happened. And still, Jesus went as determined (Luke 22:22), even though the prospect of it was not pleasant (Luke 22:41-44). We must look in awe at the willingness of Jesus to do what needed to be done.

            Pilate had written an inscription to be placed on the cross. The charge of Jesus’ “crime” was written in three languages: Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, so that all passing by would know who was dying on the cross. Each gospel account gives a slightly different wording of what was on the sign.

          Matthew has “This is Jesus the King of the Jews (Matthew 27:37)

          Mark has “The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26)

          Luke has “This is the King of the Jews.” (Luke 23:38).

          John has “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19)

There is no contradiction here; rather, we have different accounts reporting to different audiences. The charge was written in three different languages, thus it is likely the charge written in each language would not translate to Greek in exactly the same manner. It is likely that Pilate dictated the inscription in Latin, his language, and a scribe added the other translations. John probably gives us the complete statement, translated from the Latin. Mark tends to abbreviate his account, so he probably gave us just the essence of the charge. It is noted that a full translation of the Latin text to Greek would take a lot more characters than the Latin, so it is likely the scribe abbreviated his translation and Luke copies it for us. Matthew most likely gives us the translation of the Hebrew and it is possible that it also was abbreviated a bit. Yet, the important point is that they all proclaimed that Jesus was the King of the Jews.

            It was the Jews who had claimed that Jesus’ claim for kingship was dangerous (Luke 23:1-3). It was this charge that they originally brought to Pilate. Now that they had gotten what they wanted, the charge was too embarrassing to be stated publicly. They refused to accept Jesus as their king, but Pilate’s charge stated that Jesus was their king. It shows that perhaps Jesus had touched Pilate’s spirit during the trial (John 18:33-40; 19:6-15). On some level Pilate recognized Jesus as a king and he was of the nature to taunt the Jews with a fact that they themselves refused to see. Though the leaders petitioned Pilate to change the wording, Pilate refused. Even in ancient times, the forces of political correctness moved to change history, even before history was complete.

            Those passing by were hurling abuse at Jesus, wagging their heads, and taunting him. If he was really who he claimed and as powerful as he claimed, then why couldn’t he just come down from the cross? The Jewish leaders challenged Jesus to prove his kingship by coming down from the cross. They taunted him with his claims of being close to God, so why hasn’t God rescued him? To them it was clear that Jesus remained on the cross because he claimed to be the Son of God, so God had abandoned him. What temptation Christ bore on our behalf! He was fully able not only to come down from the cross but to destroy these men along with the world he himself created (Colossians 1:15-17). But what we see is Jesus’ commitment to God’s plan by staying where he did not want to be. What wondrous love he demonstrated toward these miserable sinners, and toward us as well (I Peter 2:21-24; 3:13-18; 4:12-19).

            One of the criminals, who was hanged with him, was hurling abuse at Jesus along with the crowd. It appears both robbers may have started doing this (Matthew 27:44). Imagine the insult that even those dying with you are taunting you! Of course, we see that their taunts were from selfish motives, they wanted to be rescued. But one had a change of heart. He scolded the other thief. They were being justly punished for their deeds, but he knew Jesus was innocent of any wrong doing. He then asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Think of what insight this thief had of Jesus. He knew that Jesus was innocent. He knew that Jesus truly was a king and that his kingdom was not of this world. He knew that Jesus would receive his kingdom after his death! A point that even Jesus’ own disciples failed to grasp (Acts 1:6). The only explanation is that this thief had been in contact with followers of Jesus in his past.

            In the midst of his own sufferings, Jesus gave forgiveness to this thief. Such was his right and his power (Matthew 9:2-8). That authority was given to the Son of God, not to men (John 5:20-24). No one but God can forgive sins because sins are crimes against God. Telling this man that he would join Jesus in Paradise, Jesus demonstrated both his deity and his compassion (Colossians 1:19-23).

            Standing by the cross were his mother, Mary; his mother’s sister; Mary, the wife of Clopas and the mother of James the Less and Joses (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25); and Mary Magdalene (Matthew 27:56). The apostle John was also there. Because Matthew and Mark’s accounts mention Salome, the wife of Zebedee and the mother of James and John, but doesn’t mention Mary’s sister, and John’s account doesn’t mention Salome, some conclude that Salome was Mary’s sister, making James and John Jesus’ cousins.

            When Jesus saw his mother standing nearby, he gave John responsibility for her care. You might wonder why Jesus didn’t give her care to one of his brothers, but we must remember that though some, including James, became leaders in the church, Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Jesus while he lived (John 7:5). It is likely as well that they were not there. Jesus turned over the care of his earthly mother to the disciple to whom he was closest. Once again we see Jesus mindful of his duties and responsibilities, and it should cause us to wonder (Psalm 8:3-4).

            From about the time of Pilate’s judgment against Jesus at about noon to three o’clock in the afternoon darkness was covering the land. One might think it was referring to a solar eclipse, but if so, it lasted far longer than most. The other problem is that the Jewish calendar is lunar based. Since the Passover is half-way through the month, the moon is full for the Passover each year. It would not be in the proper position to cause an eclipse. Albert Barnes notes, “Phlegon, a Roman astronomer, speaking of the fourteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, which is supposed to be that in which our Saviour died, says, that "the greatest eclipse of the sun that was ever known happened then, for the day was so turned into night that the stars appeared."” Whether this was the same eclipse or not can only be speculated.

The ninth hour (Matthew 27:45-49; Mark 15:33-36; Luke 23:44; John 19:28-29)

            At the ninth hour (about 3 o’clock in the afternoon), Jesus cried out “Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani?”which is translated “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus understood that to be forsaken, apparently forgotten by God, is the worse thing that could be suffered (Psalm 42:9-11). The spelling in Mark’s account is different from Matthew’s account. Mark’s follows the pronunciation of the words in the Aramaic dialect common in Galilee. Matthew records the Hebrew spelling of words said.

            When the Jews taunted Jesus, they had unknowingly quoted Psalms 22:6-8. At the end of his life, Jesus responded by quoting the beginning of that same Psalm. It is not a cry of despair, but a declaration of trust. He had ben left (or forsaken) to the power of his enemies, but even then he would trust God’s judgment.

            Some of the bystanders heard him, but thought he was calling out for Elijah. Though it was a loud cry, the misunderstanding causes us to realize that Jesus is weakening. The strength in his voice was fading. And thirst was overwhelming him. Knowing that everything prophesied of him had been accomplished (Isaiah 53:3-12), Jesus said, “I am thirsty” to fulfill yet another prophecy (Psalm 69:21). One of the bystanders got a reed, stuck a sponge on it, dipped it in a vessel of sour wine (vinegar), and put it to Jesus’ mouth. But others there wanted him to let Jesus alone because they were interested in seeing whether Elijah would actually rescue him or not.

Jesus’ Death (Matthew 27:50-56; Mark 15:37-41; Luke 23:46-49; John 19:30)

            Having received the soured wine, Jesus said, “It is finished.” He then cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” He then bowed his head and died. What confidence, trust, and submission shine through to the very end. His final words were a quote from Psalms 31:1-5. He died, but it was of his own free-will (John 10:17-18).

            At the death of Jesus, there was an earthquake violent enough to split rocks. The veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. Tombs were opened. After the resurrection dead saints were raised and seen walking the streets of Jerusalem.

            The centurion, who was standing in front of Jesus, along with the other guards, saw what was happening and it filled them with fear. They cried out, “Truly this was the Son of God!” The centurion began praising God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” The crowd of Jews gathered there also were afraid and began beating their breasts. But notice that it was Romans, not Jews, who came to the right conclusions. Seeing what happened, the centurion concluded that Jesus was an innocent or righteous man. He saw that Jesus was the Son of God and he saw reason to praise God. The Jews only saw reason to fear, as Peter later reminded them (Acts 2:36-41).

            In Jesus’ death, we see him as he truly is. Will we admit it?