So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified him, and with him two others – one on each side and Jesus in the middle. (verses 16b-18)
Death by crucifixion is horrific torture. The victim was forced down on the ground, arms stretched out on the crossbeam which he had previously carried – now it would carry him. Arms were nailed to that beam then hoisted up together and jarringly attached to the vertical upright, already planted in place. One can imagine the excruciating pain, overlaid with utter shame and stark humiliation. Once in place, the legs would be crossed at the ankle, one long spike being driven through both, attaching them to the cross. A small ledge might be attached as a type of seat, giving partial support to the body and momentary relief, but ultimately prolonging the agony as the victim struggled again and again to push himself higher to gain another breath.
All of this is captured by one sparse phrase in John’s Gospel: “Here they crucified him.” Neither John nor any of the Gospel writers draws this out. It’s just stated plain and simple.
Oh, but how great the moment! The hour has come. The Son of Man is lifted up. The Lamb of God takes away sin. The Good Shepherd lays down life. A seed falls to the ground and dies. Love greater than all others is enacted as one sacrifices life for his friends. One man dies for the people.
This is the moment that John’s Gospel has been moving towards all along. When John testifies at the beginning, “We have seen his glory”, this is the moment par excellent he has in mind. Jesus is “lifted up,” and John views this as the moment he is “exalted”, the same word doubling for both. That’s John’s point. The cross reveals the glory of Jesus most clearly.
That glory is spotlighted by one further detail. Two others are crucified with him, one on either side. It’s likely that John sees this detail echoing the statement in Isaiah 53:12, prophesying that he would be “numbered with the transgressors”, tarred with the same brush, identified with sinners. Indeed, he was right “in the middle”, a position of complete identification. He had come into the world to “tabernacle among us” – now, on the cross, he’s right in the midst.
But more. That central position, in this brief vignette, with these two on either side, each having earned his own execution, puts the spotlight clearly on Jesus himself. It’s as if the two convicts provide the frame, focusing our attention on the one who’s most vital. “One on each side and Jesus in the middle.”
Such simple, sparse language. Carrying such weighty consequence. Describing the central moment of human history. The focus is all on Jesus.
Lord Jesus, you are the Suffering Saviour, the Lamb who takes away sin, the One who dies on our behalf. You have identified yourself with us. You have carried our transgressions. Thank you. Praise your name.
Reflect: Eyes on Jesus – that’s how John wants us to experience the cross. Pause right now to see him clearly. Reflect on all he accomplished there. Pause several times today and refresh the sighting.
Picture: Crucifixion. Andrea Mantegna, ca 1456-1459, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.