When the Jewish authorities told Pilate “we will have no king but Caesar,” (John 19:15) they cut themselves off from the Messianic hope God had offered them.
Their answer to Pilate is especially ironic given the sign that Pilate ordered be posted above the crucified Jesus’ head:
Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It was written, “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.” (John 19:19)
When Pilate said, “Behold your king” (John 19:14), the Jewish religious leaders denied the kingship of Jesus. When they saw the sign, they denied His kingship once more:
So the chief priests of the Jews were saying to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews’; but that ‘He said, ‘I am King of the Jews.””
And Pilate said, “What I have written, I have written.” (John 19:22) Even the title of the cross bore witness to the Truth.
Lamb of God
John’s description of these events abounds with irony. Look at John 19:14, for example:
“It was the day of preparation for the Passover. It was about the sixth hour.”
In other words, it was noon, the hour at which the Passover lambs were slaughtered.
At precisely the moment when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered, at the very moment when the ritual ceremonies begin to take place in the temple so that atonement could be accomplished, John tells us, with a wink and a nod, ‘it was about twelve o’clock when Pilate said, “Behold your king.”‘
In other words, here is the real Passover lamb. Here is the one whose death takes away the sins of mankind. Here is the one whose blood offers forgiveness and redemption.
The Roman means of crucifixion is gruesome indeed. Cicero had said that the crucifixion is such a heinous form of death that the word “cross” is an ugly epitaph that cannot even be used in the same paragraph as the name of a Roman citizen. It was a means of death reserved only for the most heinous of criminals; for slaves and for outcasts, for traitors, for rebels. People were meant to be so repulsed by the sight of a crucifixion that no one would dare to commit sedition.
After He was scourged, Jesus was forced to carry His own cross to Golgotha. He carried only the horizontal beam; the upright beam would have already been in place. Prisoners were typically bound to the cross in one of two ways: either they were tied to the crossbeam, then tied to the vertical beam as the crossbeam was put in place, or their hands and feet were attached to the wood with large spikes. Jesus experienced this latter, more vicious form of crucifixion.
On the upright beam was something the Romans called a sedile, a small ledge. The victim could support his weight by lifting his body up and pressing up with his legs so that his buttocks could actually rest upon the sedile, thus taking the weight off his arms and chest. The enormous pressure upon the shoulder sockets and arms created great pressure upon the lungs so that asphyxiation was commonly the final means of death. Jesus would have repeatedly pushed Himself up on the sedile to take some of the pressure off of His upper body. Then, his body would have inevitably begun the excruciating slide down off the sedile. I use the word excruciating intentionally; the word comes from the Latin word cruces, or cross. Jesus would then have tried once again to press Himself back up onto the sedile so that He could take a breath. This terrible cycle continued for several hours.
Ritually Clean for Passover
Recall that the Jewish authorities would not enter Pilate’s residence, the Praetorium, for fear of being rendered unclean and thus unable to partake of the evening’s Passover meal. Towards the end of the day, they asked the Roman guards present at the crucifixion to break Jesus’ legs so that they might take His dead body away before the Passover began. They were careful to remain ritually clean as they crucified our Lord.
Death by Asphyxiation
Once a victim’s legs were broken, he would have had no means of pressing his body back up on the sedile to relieve the pressure on his arms, shoulders, chest, and lungs. He then would have died of asphyxiation and blood loss. We know, from studying the skeletal remains of crucified prisoners, that the Romans would sometimes shatter the victim’s legs with a mallet as he hung on the cross.
These things came to pass to fulfill the Scripture.
Jesus was already dead when the guards reached Him. There was no need to break His legs. The Jewish religious leaders tried to stay in control by keeping themselves ritually clean, but John reminds us that it is God who is in charge of human history:
For these things came to pass to fulfill the Scripture, “Not a bone of Him shall be broken.” (John 19:36)
The more the Jewish authorities denied Jesus, the more they denied their real Passover. The more they rejected Jesus, the more they rejected the One who can truly offer the forgiveness of sins. The more they turned their faces from Jesus, the more they denied the possibility of ever truly celebrating a new exodus, redemption, and forgiveness.
Through Jesus, we will find freedom.
The more we deny our sins, the more we live in them. Our culture tells us that there is no such thing as sin, but let me tell you, the Scripture makes it abundantly clear that there is such a thing as violating the commandments of God. The more we seek to deny our own sins, the more we live in them. The more we refuse to turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness, the more we live in pride.
You and I often think, “I am the master of my own fate. I’m the captain of my own destiny.” Dear friends, you and I will never find our freedom until we come in submission to the Person of Jesus Christ. The irony of the death of Jesus is that He is truly the King, He is truly the Passover lamb, He is truly the one through whom we will find freedom to be the people God has called us to be.
- Saving the Savior: Pilate’s Failed Attempt
- What about the Gospel first attracted you?
- The Glory of the Cross
The preceding was adapted by Rachel Motte from a sermon Dr. Sloan delivered at Tallowood Baptist Church on March 18, 1990.