When we touch the cross, we put our finger on the pulse of the universe. We touch something that is warm, alive, and vital. Yet it is also holy, arguably the holiest ground of all. With that in mind, I invite us to take off our sandals and approach the cross in reverence, awe, and humility.
In an effort to help us appreciate the suffering Jesus endured in redeeming us, people sometimes do what the writers of the New Testament didn’t do—they go into graphic detail about the flogging of Jesus prior to His crucifixion. The New Testament writers didn’t need to do this because the people they wrote to understood this—it was part of their world. It’s done today because we aren’t familiar with the practice. So that’s a good thing.
What isn’t a good thing is that sometimes a line is crossed. The flogging is embellished and exaggerated to the point that an attempt is made to show that Jesus was beaten to the point of being near death, as in the movie, The Passion of the Christ.
This simply isn’t true for several reasons.
- First of all, it was never the purpose of flogging to put a person near death. If it did so, it was accidental rather than intentional because if a person was at the point of death after flogging, it defeated the whole point of crucifixion—to inflict a prolonged period of suffering and humiliation upon them before death so everyone could see what happened when someone dared to oppose Rome. Flogging prepared a person for crucifixion in that it broke their will, crushed their spirit, and extinguished any remaining hope they might have had.
- This dovetails with the fact that the gospel writers do not go into any detail concerning Jesus’ flogging. The significance of that is that it means the flogging Jesus received was what was usually experienced by any person on their way to crucifixion.
- Ed Wharton in his book, Christianity: A Clear Case of History, offers several helpful insights:
- He points out that when Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus, Pilate was surprised to hear He was dead so soon and had the centurion confirm it (Mark 15:44). This is significant because if Pilate didn’t personally witness the flogging of Jesus, he at least saw Christ soon afterwards (John 19:1-5). If Jesus was near death after His flogging, then Pilate wouldn’t have been surprised that His death happened so quickly! But He wasn’t and Pilate was so surprised he had to confirm Jesus’ death through the centurion.
We need to be locked in on this, because the next truth could be misconstrued as supporting the idea that Jesus was near death after His flogging. What is that truth?
- Jesus died after just six hours on the cross (Mark 15:25, 33-37). Killing time on a cross was usually somewhere between 36 and 72 hours. The cause of death wasn’t loss of blood —it was a combination of exposure, exhaustion, and asphyxiation. Again, that was the point of crucifixion—for death to be slow in coming so the intense suffering might be extended. Yet Christ’s death happened much more quickly than usual—hence Pilates’ surprise.
- The two rebels who were crucified with Jesus also provide us with some important confirming evidence. There’s no reason to believe they weren’t flogged as Jesus was, but they were certainly no where near death afterwards either. On a different line, they are still alive after Jesus has died and their legs had to be broken to speed their deaths. We have no reason to believe that Jesus was crucified in a different manner than them. A good question to ask is, Why didn’t this have to be done with Jesus?
So what have we said so far? Two things: Christ’s flogging didn’t leave Him at or near the point of death and yet . . . Jesus nonetheless died in relatively little time. We know from an eyewitness (Pilate) that Jesus wasn’t near death after His flogging, so why did His death occur so quickly?
In all of this, there is no attempt to minimize the sufferings of Jesus—but rather to redirect our thinking to what the N.T. writers point us toward in understand the agony of the cross.