Anatomy of a Crucifixion

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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Anatomy of a Crucifixion

Is crucifixion as bad as its reputation? Because Scripture provides few details, today’s devotional will examine the ghastly process to which our LORD and Savior was subjected. You can make you own determination.

In Psalm 22, certain aspects of the crucifixion technique are revealed in cryptic form. Psalm 22 is remarkable and prophetic because it foretells a technique invented 500 or 600 years after David wrote it. It is only through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that David was able to describe our LORD’s path to death, a technique which, at that time, was unknown to the world. David does not name it specifically, but crucifixion components are described clearly.

Honors, in a perverse way, go to the Persians, who invented the method of crucifixion in 300 – 400 B.C., and created what is arguably the most painful and tortuous death known to man. Above and beyond anything yet implemented, it required a new word to be coined to capture its brutality and severity. For example, it is from the word crucifixion that we derive our word excruciating, from the Latin ex (out of or from) and crux (the Cross).

Crucifixion began not with a person on the Cross, but with the Cross on the person. The condemned man was forced to carry the heavy crossbeam on his back. A burden totaling between 75 and 100 pounds. Christ, our Savior, was forced to carry both portions with His back in tattered shreds from the flogging just minutes before. Scripture (Matthew 27:32) describes Him as so weak that He needed assistance from Cyrus of Cyrene.

Once the condemned person had reached the execution location, soldiers took metal spikes approximately seven to nine inches long and hammered them through the wrists of each hand about an inch below the palm. In medical terms, this was between the radius and the ulna in the arm and the carpal bones in the hand. This location was preferred as it provided “sufficient resistance”. In other words, the victim would not be torn from the cross by his own weight.

The spikes pierced or put pressure on the median nerve, the same nerve that sends a shooting pain up your arm when you hit your “funny bone”. Destroying this nerve also caused permanent paralysis of the hand. With the victim firmly on the crossbeam, the crossbeam was attached to the vertical beam. Soldiers positioned the legs at a 45-degree angle. The feet were pointed downward in a parallel with the vertical beam. A spike was then driven between the 2nd and 3rd metatarsal bones, which served to prevent the metal from tearing through the flesh whenever the victim pushed his foot against it.

The victim now began a slow and painful death, ultimately caused by asphyxiation. The muscles in the chest began to contract due to the weight being born by the outstretched arms. The net result was an ability to inhale, but the victim could not exhale while in this position. Exhaling required the victim to push all his weight down on the spikes piercing his feet so the pressure in the chest could be relieved. This pushing caused excruciating pain in the nerves of the feet, and forced Jesus’ bloodied and wounded back to scrape painfully on the rough-hewn Cross.

The victim held this upward position only long enough to exhale, then slumped back down to place his weight back on the arms. This up-and-down cycle, along with the wounds, caused the arms to be stretched as much as 6 to 9 inches. Both shoulders would be pulled out of joint, followed by the elbows and wrists. The process exhausted the victim. Carbon dioxide levels in the blood rose while oxygen levels decreased. Increased carbon dioxide causes the heart to beat faster, eventually causing cardiac arrest and what’s known medically as respiratory acidosis.

After several hours, the heart begins to fail and the lungs fill with fluid. As Christ demonstrated, the victim dehydrates. Scripture records His plea “I am thirsty”. (John 19:28). Fluids build up in the lining of the heart and in the lungs and can actually cause the heart to burst. Evidence of the fluids was recorded when the Roman soldier thrust his spear into Christ’s side, producing a flow of both blood and water from the disabled organs. In a very real sense, Jesus died of a broken heart.

Because He was already dead, the Roman soldiers did not perform the traditional ritual of breaking the legs of the victim. By crippling the legs, the victim was unable to push up to release the air in the lungs. Death came swiftly after this, sometimes as fast as nine minutes later.

Christ’s death on the Cross fulfilled a number of Old Testament prophecies, including:

“His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and His form marred beyond human likeness.” (Isaiah 52:14)

“He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:5)

“I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me…they have pierced my hands and my feet, I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” (Psalm 22:14, 16-17).

“   they will look upon me the one they have pierced.” (Zechariah 12:10)

Jesus Christ suffered a type of Hell as the life slowly drained from His body on the Cross. He bore this unbelievable pain without complaining, only once stating a physical condition of thirst. He bore this pain so you and I can avoid the eternal torments of Hell.

As graphic and gruesome as the pain of crucifixion is, Jesus Christ let us know that an even greater pain could await us. As He cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), He indicated the most excruciating pain of all, that of being separated from the Father. He was able to bear the enormous physical pain that wracked his body without a word, but the separation from His Father for the first time was more than He could bear.

Jesus knew we could in some way relate to the physical pain He was suffering. However, He chose His words to emphasize that by far the worst pain of all is being away from the Father, even for a short time. Imagine how excruciating an eternal separation would be. Jesus gives us a warning – it’s not normal to be separated from the Father. Jesus died for us out of love so we may avoid this unspeakable torment. Let us take time today to thank Him for the work He has done on our behalf and to share His sacrifice with others.

In His love and service,

Jeff Myers
A servant of Jesus Christ


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