If you had been hurrying along a certain road just outside of Jerusalem that Passover day, you would have noticed a fairly common sight for those days in Roman-occupied Judea. Three men were being crucified, each on a cross or a stake (Greek stauros).
What might the scene have looked like to a passerby?
The Place of the Skull
All four gospel writers mention where Jesus was crucified. “And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center” (John 19:17–18). Today, however, the actual location of Golgotha is not known for sure, and several places have been debated for centuries.
In 2014, my wife and I were privileged to keep the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem. While there were many wonderful experiences, there were tense moments as well. Large, noisy demonstrations were common, and even brief riots. And, while we were on the Temple Mount, numerous loud explosions were detonated at the nearby Al Aqsa Mosque, reverberating through the Temple Mount area, adding to the atmosphere of tension and uncertainty. Jerusalem may be called “The City of Peace,” but it saw no peace during the Fall Holy Days that year.
While in Jerusalem, we visited one possible location of the crucifixion. It was near a busy highway outside of the wall of the Old City, where—from one angle—a feature of a rocky hill looked like a skull. A highway was located along the same route in ancient times as well. Our guide mentioned that the Romans preferred to set such torturous executions near roadways so that passersby would see and fear Roman ruthlessness.
A Crowd Gathered
If you had passed by that day, you would have seen people taunting a man who was in agony, being crucified between two thieves. A large crowd was in the area watching the events (Luke 23:27), but a smaller group came close enough to the man to speak to Him: “And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ Likewise, the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, ‘He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, “I am the Son of God.”’ Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing” (Matthew 27:39–44). It was perhaps the worst case of “adding insult to injury” ever recorded.
If you had heard what the crowd was saying to the man, you might not have remembered some prophetic verses of Scripture, which say, “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised by the people. All those who see Me ridicule Me; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, ‘He trusted in the Lord, let Him rescue Him; let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!’… Be not far from Me, for trouble is near; for there is none to help” (Psalm 22:6–8, 11).
As you watched, you would have seen Roman soldiers guarding the scene, making sure that no one rescued the suffering men. And they passed the time bargaining over one man’s garments. The Apostle John observed, “Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece. They said therefore among themselves, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be,’ that the Scripture might be fulfilled which says: ‘They divided My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots.’ Therefore, the soldiers did these things” (John 19:23–24).
If you had been a bystander, could you have perceived the thoughts and intense feelings of the man crucified between the thieves? Centuries earlier, as the One who inspired Scripture, He recorded the feelings He would have in that moment by inspiring the psalmist to write, “Many bulls have surrounded Me; strong bulls of Bashan have encircled Me. They gape at Me with their mouths, like a raging and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all My bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; it has melted within Me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and My tongue clings to My jaws; You have brought Me to the dust of death. For dogs have surrounded Me; the congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet; I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me. They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots” (Psalm 22:12–18). Centuries before it took place, He had foretold His death and inspired a record describing what He would personally experience in crucifixion.
And you also would have noticed that at least one of those battle-hardened Roman soldiers had a spear—one that you would see him use to end that crucified man’s life (John 19:34)—if you remained and watched.
An Anguished Conversation
A curious bystander would have to be fairly close to the three crucified men to hear a conversation that took place among them. The gospel of Matthew records that at first, “Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him…” (Matthew 27:44). That means that the two criminals sided with the hostile crowd against the man who claimed to be the Messiah. It must have been a pitiable thing to see. No one would defend or comfort Him.
But then, an interesting thing happened: one of the robbers had a change of heart. While one continued to revile desperately, Luke 23 records that the other thief rebuked his associate in crime and defended the one named Jesus. “Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.’ But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’” (vv. 39–42). Then, in verse 23 the New King James Version translation reads (emphasis added), “And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’”
Some point to this exchange as proving that Jesus was saying that they would both be going to heaven that same day. But Jesus said that He would be in the grave “three days and three nights” and gave that as the only proof that He was the Messiah. “But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’” (Matthew 12:39–40). “The heart of the earth” is not “Paradise.”
If Jesus were going to heaven that same day, how could He be the Messiah that He said He was? The answer is that the Greek text that records Jesus’ Aramaic words does not say what the English translators interpreted it to say. Greek has no punctuation, and although commas are usually helpful in reading English, the commas inserted by the New King James Version translators changed the meaning of the original Greek. Just move one of the commas one word over, and the meaning becomes clear in English. Jesus actually said, “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” If you had been a bystander, that is what you would have heard Jesus tell the man. The resurrected thief would be with Jesus in the Kingdom of God someday in the future—but not that day. Jesus spent the next three days dead in His grave before He was resurrected to life and appeared to many. And that thief is still in his grave, unconscious, awaiting his resurrection.
For about three hours of the crucifixion, your observation would have been somewhat limited, because there was darkness in the middle of the day. The gospel writers recorded that it was dark from about noon to mid-afternoon. “Now it was about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. Then the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:44–45). The darkness could not have been the result of a solar eclipse as some have suggested, since a solar eclipse cannot occur naturally during the days of the full moon around the Passover, the fourteenth day of the first lunar month. Also, a solar eclipse occurs along a very narrow path, not “over all the earth” (v. 44).
When God caused the sun to be darkened for three hours, it must have been an eerie and frightening experience, and those who reported it offered no explanation as to how it was occurring. We are not told what caused the darkness physically. But spiritually, God was showing them the darkness of this age in which “the power of darkness” rules for now. Jesus said, “But this is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). The Apostle John recorded Jesus saying, “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). God gave them a miraculous, dramatic demonstration of their spiritual condition. But as a passerby, that probably would not have occurred to you.
Three Things Nailed to the Cross
Some say that the Ten Commandments were somehow “nailed to the cross” along with Jesus, but that is not in the Bible. Actually, three things were nailed to that cross, and if you had been a passerby that day, you would have seen two of them hanging there—but one of them you would not have seen.
The first thing you would have seen on that cross was the man who had been nailed to it, hands and feet. His weight was hanging on the nails in His hands or wrists, except to the extent that he could painfully push up on the nail or nails in His feet to help Him get a breath into His distended rib cage. He had been terribly beaten, with His face marred almost beyond recognition (Isaiah 52:14; Matthew 26:67–68; 27:30). His body had been severely flogged by a Roman lictor wielding a flagellum (or flagrum) with force. That instrument of torture was a whip with several leather strands, each weighted with lead balls or pieces of bone. The flagellum was designed to lacerate the skin and the tissues underneath. The pain it produced was unimaginable, and its victims often died from the beating.
But you would probably not have known that the man’s terrible beating was prophesied long ago to be for our benefit when Isaiah wrote, “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4–5).
The man you would have seen nailed to the cross was in physical and psychological agony. But if you had been nearby, you might have heard Him say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Another thing you would have noticed was a sign nailed to the cross or hanging from it, above Jesus’ head, and each of the four gospel writers that mention it report slightly different wording. Some critics say that these four different versions are contradictions in the Bible, but that is incorrect. Each report of the sign, bearing an inscription written in three different languages, add together and work as a whole to give a full description of the Man being crucified.
Mark’s report gives the simplest description on the sign, providing the central element common to all of the descriptions: “Now it was the third hour, and they crucified Him. And the inscription of His accusation was written above: ‘THE KING OF THE JEWS’” (Mark 15:25–26). The words for “The King of the Jews” (Greek HO BASILEUS TŌN IOUDAIŌN) are found in the Greek biblical text of each of the other three inscriptions
Luke gives more details: “And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: ‘THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS’” (Luke 23:38).
Matthew explains, “And they put up over His head the accusation written against Him: ‘THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS’” (Matthew 27:37), showing that the sign was clear about whom it was addressing.
The gospel of John adds another detail: “Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: ‘JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.’ Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Therefore, the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews,” but, “He said, ‘I am the King of the Jews.’”’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written’” (John 19:19–22).
Together, the collective witness of the gospel accounts is clear: Whether taken together with all three of the languages, or stated exactly in each—Greek, Latin and Hebrew—the sign told all who saw it: “THIS IS JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.”
So you, as a passerby, should have been able to read at least one of the inscriptions above the tortured man who claimed to be the Messiah and the Son of God.
The third thing nailed to that cross was invisible to a passerby. Placed upon the Man nailed to that cross were the sins of mankind—both yours and mine.
The Apostle Peter wrote that Jesus “Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). The Apostle Paul put it similarly, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). How could you, as a passerby, have known that while the tortured man you were seeing was very human, in fact, He was the God of Israel “made flesh” (John 1:14 KJV) and had already inhabited eternity? And just by looking and listening, could you have discerned that He was innocent and completely without sin? He was “Christ, our Passover… sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7) and “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He was Jesus Christ, “in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:14). As the Eternal Creator of mankind, without sin, He was the only one who could pay that penalty for us. The world was killing its Creator, who was dying willingly for it, shedding blood that could wash away its sins, enabling us to be made just and reconciled. As He was hanging there, He took upon Himself—and bore the weight—of all those sins, and then He died! He made it possible for the death penalty of our sins to end with His death.
But as a simple passerby, you would not have known.
The Apostle Peter summarized it: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth’; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:21–25).
A traveler that day would have continued on sadly. But those who know Jesus Christ as both Passover and King can say, “To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:5–6).
Are you just a passerby? Hopefully not! Christ established the Christian Passover as a memorial to the extraordinary events that occurred that Passover in 31ad. This Passover, let’s clearly remember what Christ did for us that day.
Understanding Colossians 2:14
There is a particular scripture that many read and erroneously conclude that it means that the Ten Commandments are “nailed to the cross” and “done away.” The Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians that Christ has achieved our forgiveness, “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14 NASB). The words “certificate of debt” (Greek cheirógrafon toís dógmasin) are translated “handwriting of ordinances” in the King James Version, and they mistakenly assume that Greek phrase refers to the Ten Commandments or God’s Law in general.
One Bible commentary explains, “Jewish tradition also portrayed sins as ‘debts’ before God… Paul says the atonement occurred when the debt was nailed to the cross in Christ and thus paid” (Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary). The phrase that Paul uses, “certificate of debt,” is a reference to the guilt of our sins, not God’s divine Law.
Paul did not contradict his letter to the Colossians when he wrote the Church in Corinth, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters” (1 Corinthians 7:19).
What was “nailed to the cross” in Colossians 2:14 is the guilt of our sins, and it was nailed there in the body of Jesus Christ who was made to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21).