“How Did Jesus Die?”
This week, England’s Prince Harry made the news as he talked about his struggles of coping with his mother, England’s Diana, Princess of Wales’, tragic death near Paris on August 31st, 1997. Prince Harry was only 12 years old at the time. Her death was just too much for him to understand. Most of us can remember many of the details of her funeral that took place six days later. That morning, the coffin and its extensive cortege traveled from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey in London. During that solemn procession the Abbey’s tenor bell rang every minute as 31 million people in Britain and over 2 billion people around the world looked on. The one hour ceremony was accompanied by organ music from Mendelssohn, Bach, Dvorak, Vaughn Williams, and Elgar. Virtually every person in the royal family of Great Britain was present. Following the service, Diana’s coffin was taken to an island in the center of an ornamental lake at Althorp, her parent’s home. It was a funeral and a burial fit for royalty.
Last Sunday, Easter Sunday, we began the process of answering three key questions addressed by the Apostle John in his Gospel. Question 1, “Why did Jesus have to die?” was tackled and we learned from John’s testimony that Jesus had to die because it was the will of the Father. Although many centuries have witnessed surges of anti-Semitism, sometimes justified because of the role of the Jews in putting Jesus to death, such hatred is totally misplaced. Jesus did not die because of the Jews. They were out of options. Jesus did not die because of Pontus Pilate or the Roman government. They were out of options. Jesus died because it was the will of the Father. In John 18 and part of 19 we saw the sovereign hand of God in operation declaring the glory of God through the death of the Son. Why did Jesus have to die? Because it was the will of the Father.
Question 2, “How did Jesus die?” is the focus of today’s message. And the answer is equally simple, yet striking. How did Jesus die? He died as a King. The details that John provided in his gospel describe the death of Jesus but do so reminding us that he died as a king. And it was very fitting that included in the story of his death was the record of his burial. It was a royal burial, fit for a King. Although Jesus died among thieves he was buried among the elite. The story of the cross is the story of a King lifted up so all would see him, hear his words, see his deeds from the cross, and witness his death and burial. The questions that continued to perplex believers in John’s day needed the reassuring answer that Jesus’ death and even his burial were fitting for a King. Not a tragedy. Not a victory by Satan. But fitting for a King. We will let the text answer our question more fully.
I. The King on Display (vv. 17-24)
A. In harmony with the Synoptic Gospels, John’s Passion account declared in no uncertain terms that Jesus died the death of crucifixion. Although it was the Phoenician’s who originated the idea of death on a cross some 700 years earlier, it was the Romans who perfected it to a cruel science. The condemned criminal, after undergoing all legally required interrogation and public humiliation, was forced to carry the cross member (the patibulum) for his cross. The upright section (the staticulum) typically remained at the scene to be used for other executions but each condemned man had to carry his own cross.
B. We know that Jesus fell beneath the weight of his cross. After horrible torture the night before and the morning of his crucifixion he was too weak to carry his own cross. Simon, a Jewish proselyte from Cyrene, was pressed into service and made to carry the cross for Jesus. Not finding it necessary to embellish the known story of our Lord’s sufferings, the Apostle John simply related that Jesus was crucified at a place called “Golgotha” in Aramaic, or “Calvary” in the Greek language, both words properly translated as, “The place of the Skull.” It was there that Jesus was crucified between two common thieves.
C. The compelling emphasis of John’s account, the subtle hint for our benefit, was the fact that over Jesus’s head Pilate had erected a sign that read in three languages (Aramaic, Latin, and Greek), “This is Jesus of Nazareth; The King of the Jews.” A message declared in such a manner that every person in the then known world could read it. The Jews, the Romans, and the Greeks. Pilate wanted everyone to know what he suspected in his heart but was too weak to defend. The man dying on the center cross was someone special. He was a King. He was Israel’s King. And although they failed to see him as such, Pilate declared it and John emphasized it for the sake of his readers some 50 years later.
D. We may be tempted to think little of such a placard but the Jewish leadership did not take it lightly. I think John emphasized this for our sake. The angry Jewish leaders demanded that Pilate change the wording. “Re-write it with, ‘He said that he was the King of the Jews,’
they demanded.” But Pilate refused with the famous quote, “What I have written, I have written.” There was no changing it. Pilate wanted everyone to know that the Jews were making a colossal mistake. They were putting to death the one who had come to be their King.
E. John also emphasized the fact that Jesus’ clothes were divided among the soldiers. When they came to his under garment, a simple robe made of one material, they decided to leave it intact and instead gambled for it. This was to fulfill the words of Psalm 22 where the suffering Messiah prophesied, “They divided my garments among them but they gambled for my clothing.
F. We will pursue this idea of fulfilled Scripture a bit further in our final point this morning where two additional Old Testament Scriptures were fulfilled that day. John viewed these fulfillments as very important.
II. The King’s Words and Deeds (vv. 25-30)
A. Bible teachers for centuries have found significance in the words that Jesus uttered while near or on the cross. This morning we viewed a short video featuring the “Seven words of Jesus from the Cross.” Time does not allow us to pursue all seven statements but we do have three of them recorded by John. Each gives us a special insight into John’s emphasis that Jesus died as a King.
B. The text makes very clear the names of some of the women who followed Jesus to the cross. The disciples had all scattered except John. But the women stayed near him and grieved as they saw him suffer. Among those near by were Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary from Magdala, which was north of Tiberias near the Sea of Galilee. Along with the three Marys was Jesus’ aunt, Mary’s sister. Although she was not named, it is strongly suspected that she was the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. This is interesting because it may afford us insight as to why she felt freedom to request special Kingdom positions for her sons.
C. With the subject of Jesus’ mother already in the record, John went on to testify that from the cross Jesus directed him to take care of Mary. Although the words translated do not carry the same impact for us, this was actually a very dramatic conversation. It was not unusual that condemned men dying the death of crucifixion would give away their possessions from the cross. But Jesus’ attention to his mother’s needs was very special. At this time Jesus’ siblings were not yet believers. That would happen later. We believe that Joseph had already passed. So Jesus took time during his suffering under the weight of the world’s sins to give attention to caring for his mother. John was obviously honored that this duty had been entrusted to him.
D. Swiftly John’s account shifted to the conclusion of the divine transaction taking place on the cross. In his omniscience, Jesus knew that all had been fulfilled. The price had been paid. So he made a request and offered a decree. His request communicated that he was thirsty. In his humanity he had undergone the most awful kind of suffering. Of course he was thirsty. We must never lose sight of the fact that Jesus was fully human and that in his humanity he died in our place. He was thirsty. So they dipped a sponge in sour wine vinegar but when he tasted it, he refused it. He didn’t refuse it because it was wine as some have suggested! No, he refused it because it would have tasted awful. If you’re thirsty and dehydrated as he undoubtedly was, you don’t want to drink vinegar!
E. He also made a decree. He declared, “It is finished!” In the Greek text it is only one word. Tetelestai. It was the announcement of the King. It was a declaration of victory. Sin’s debt had been paid in full. God’s cup of wrath had been fully drunk. It was over! He may have thirsted as a man but it was as Heaven’s King that he declared, “It is finished.”
III. The King’s Death and Burial (vv. 31-42)
A. We now enter the final section of our text and with it we not only witness with the Apostle John Jesus’ death but also his burial. This is where we started. Jesus died like a King and his burial was fitting for a King.
B. The fact that Jesus was already dead came as a surprise. It was not unusual for it to take days for men to die by crucifixion. Victims of crucifixion didn’t die because of nails being driven through hands and feet or because of dislocated bones. They typically died from exposure, asphyxiation, or blood loss. Death on the cross was cruel because it was such a slow painful death. Josephus, the famous first century historian was an eyewitness to numerous crucifixions. He called it the most brutal death that Rome used. But the Jew’s did not have the luxury of waiting days for Jesus and the criminals with him to slowly die. With sundown would come the rare Sabbath Passover. It would have been highly offensive for a Jew to be hanging on a cross while the nation celebrated the Passover Festival. So, in their angst to get the ordeal finished, soldiers were sent to hasten the deaths of the victims. This was done by breaking the legs of the victim. If the legs were broken then death by asphyxiation would be typical. With broken legs they would not be able to push up against their weight and enable the lungs to both exhale and inhale. As the soldiers approached the scene they broke the legs of the two criminals but they discovered that Jesus was already dead. He had chosen when his life would end. One of the soldiers took his lance and thrust it into Jesus’ side and out flowed water and blood mixed together, affirming that he was already dead.
C. Two men came to beg the body of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. One a disciple and the other a Pharisee but both secret believers in Jesus. John has already had much to say about the weakness of the faith of those who were secret believers but evidently the death of Christ on the cross was sufficient to inspire even the weakest Christian to take their stand. With loving hands they lowered the body from the cross, anointed it generously with spices, and laid it in a nearby tomb that belonged to Joseph.
D. Although Jesus died between thieves, he was buried among the elite. He was buried in a beautiful garden. He was buried in a rich man’s tomb. His body was anointed with spices. His body was properly wrapped in a burial shroud. Yes, Jesus’ burial was fitting for royalty. It was fitting for the King.
Conclusion: Last Sunday we read the account provided by John of Jesus before the High Priest and Pontus Pilate. All through the story John portrayed Jesus as the victorious king. In John’s account Jesus was never a victim, he unwaveringly held his place as the Only Son of the Eternal Father. The same theme has been evident in today’s text. Jesus, not the soldiers, not the act of crucifixion, and certainly not the will of men, was in control. When he cried, “It is finished,” he spoke as the King in control. The price for sin had been fully paid. The cup of God’s wrath had been drunk to the last drop. And the King had successfully carried out God’s plan. Today we celebrate that death. Jesus’ victory was the key to our salvation. Jesus’ victory was the key to our security. Jesus’ victory was the key to our sanctification. What was necessary to satisfy God should satisfy us. When the King shouted, “It is finished,” he was declaring our eternal deliverance. The death that followed was all a part of God’s great plan. His plan for our redemption.