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Cross Examination

This day has been far from ordinary. An unexpected solar eclipse, vandalism in the Temple, a localized earthquake, and bizarre reports of corpses emerging from their tombs have made it a day to remember. To top it off, the town is divided about a man named Jesus who has just been executed at the hands of the state.

Under normal circumstances, you would never be called upon to investigate such an case. Instead, you would assume that a state execution had been correctly carried out, that the person sentenced to death was in fact guilty of a heinous crime, and that proper procedures had been followed. These were not normal circumstances, however, with rumours of a conspiracy, witnesses accused of lying under oath, and the possibility of a set-up. Did this execution follow due process? Was the alleged crime worthy of the death sentence? Had the prisoner actually committed a crime in the first place?

Plus, this was not exactly a low-profile execution. It involved a popular rabbi, a mob of Israelites, and conflicting witnesses. The rumours have been swirling since the arrest was made… and that was just last night! Hard to believe the courts acted so quickly.

Surveying the Scene

You arrive on the scene late in the afternoon with the long weekend ahead of you. The Passover celebration is about to begin, so you’re not exactly thrilled about working. But you’ve made good time; the body’s still there along with most of the witnesses. Hoping to wrap everything up by sunset, you start your investigation.

Roman Crucifixion was the clearly the method of execution, with the body still hanging limply on the cross. Nothing out of the ordinary there. How different it must have been just two or three hours earlier as the man writhed in pain. The soldiers nearby are preparing to remove the body; somebody must have claimed it. Probably the rich man supervising the process. You can tell by the way he’s dressed that he’d be able to pay for a tomb. Well, you’ll soon be able to examine the body before it’s taken away to be buried.

At the top of the cross you notice a sign. What does it say? As you walk closer for a better look, you discover one statement written in three different languages… Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. All three identify this man as, “The King of the Jews”. Is that supposed to be His crime? What kind of a crime is that?

You make note of two other crosses nearby. The bodies of those criminals, still hanging there, had apparently not yet been claimed.

The sound of crying catches your attention. Off to one side you notice some women, sobbing loudly. The one in the middle looks like she might be in her mid-to-late 40s. Possibly His mother, although a little young for that. If she is the mother, you wonder what it must have been like for her to stand there watching as her son suffered such a cruel and violent death. Looks like the other women and a young man are trying to console her. You make a mental note to talk with them once they calm down.

Several soldiers and other onlookers are hanging around, including a few important religious leaders, looking even more proud of themselves than usual. Maybe there’s something to those rumours after all. You make a notation on your clipboard to see what they’ve been up to during the past 24 hours.

Your investigation primarily involves this location, Golgotha. An apt name, meaning “the place of the skull”. However, you’ve already been informed that Jesus was forced to carry his own cross down a stretch of the main city street—the Via Dolorosa—then up the hill to this very spot. What had this man done to deserve this? Thankfully, he had some help carrying it. The soldiers are detaining a man named Simon of Cyrene for questioning.

Oh good, the body’s down from the cross. You’ll be able to examine it before they take it away.

Examining the Body

As many times as you’ve seen a crucified body, you’re still shocked. Not just because of the nails; it’s the beatings and torture this man must have endured beforehand that sickens you. If you didn’t already know, you’d be hard-pressed to identify the body as human. Pull it together… you’ve got to do this.

With the body lying there, essentially naked, you’ve got a clear view of its condition. This man had sustained a serious flogging. Sometimes those Roman soldiers just enjoy their work too much. Some of the flesh is completely torn away and you can see bare bone! Having suffered severe blood loss, you’re surprised he survived long enough to be crucified. Maybe you should report the soldiers’ brutality and their use of excessive force to the Senate. Yeah, right. As if the Senate would give you the time of day.

Let’s start at the top. What’s that on his head? Could it be… yes… it’s a crown woven together out of thorns! Obviously a cruel parody of the sign on the cross. It must be the handiwork of the soldiers again. Such treatment would have been painful under the best of circumstances, but combined with the extra sensitivity caused by the flogging and the blood pulsing through his veins, it must have been unbearable.

Next, you take note of some bruising on the face. It’s hard to say for certain, but your best guess is that the soldiers had beaten him. But then, the Romans weren’t exactly known for their compassion.

You work your way down to the shoulders. Something looks odd here. Is he deformed? You suddenly realize his shoulder has been dislocated. Must have happened when they were stretching his arms out to nail him to the crossbeam. Again, that’s not unusual with a crucifixion.

Time to examine the nail holes in the wrist. More of a tear than a hole, really. You glance at the feet and notice they are in the same condition. You remind yourself that a person being crucified would hang with his lungs filling with liquid, then he would have to pull himself up in order to breathe. He would hold himself there until the pain became too great, then he would drop down and begin the cycle again. Each time would tear just a little bit more.

Crucifixion was anything but quick and painless. No, crucifixions could drag on for days, during which time birds might even begin plucking at and feeding on the body while it was still alive. Thankfully no sign of that here. Jesus had been nailed to the cross at 9:00 that morning, and the time of death was recorded as 3:00 PM… about the same time as the earthquake and the eclipse. Jesus had lasted only 6 hours; not surprising, considering how much abuse his body had taken.

You check his back. As expected, splinters from the up-and-down motion against the rugged cross.

Then you notice something else. You almost missed it in the midst of all the torn flesh, but you discover a stab wound in his side. Was he actually pierced by a spear? How many ways did they want to kill this man? You call over the Captain of the Guard to account for this.

He explains that the Jewish leaders insisted that no one be left hanging on a cross during the Passover, so soldiers had been sent out to break the legs of the criminals. Not being able to pull themselves up to breathe would cause them to die much quicker. When the soldiers arrived at Jesus’ cross, however, they found He had already died. There was no need to break His legs, so they simply stabbed Him to confirm he was dead. The Captain of the Guard adds, “When he was pierced, what looked like a mixture of blood and water flowed out of the wound.” This confirms that the spear must have gone through a lung and into the heart, verifying that Jesus was indeed dead at the time He was stabbed.

You pause for a moment. You think to yourself, “The nails through the wrists and feet would have been bad enough, but the flogging, the crown of thorns, the beatings, the splinters, the ridicule, the public humiliation… this kind of death must be absolutely excruciating.”

You’ve seen all you need of the body. No need for an autopsy. Looks like a typical crucifixion. Maybe a bit more violent than most, but nothing too out of the ordinary… except the crown of thorns and the stab wound, which have explanations.

Your next objective is to get a grasp on who this man was. The sign on top of the cross identified him as the “King of the Jews”, whatever that means. Couldn’t mean much, since the entire region was under Roman rule.

Of course, you had heard some of the stories about Jesus long before this day. You knew of his reputation as a rabbi, a moral leader, and a miracle worker. In fact, you first heard about him about three years ago. If memory serves, Jesus had been attending a wedding party as a guest when, as the story goes, he actually turned water into wine!

You also recall that Jesus had a background in carpentry… a trade He picked up from His father. Yes, it’s all coming back now. You remember something about his father and his mother. What’s it been… 30 years or so? My, how time flies. You remember the scandal… a young teenage girl getting pregnant… not even married yet. They tried to claim she was still a virgin, as if that could ever happen. You wonder… could this have been that child?

Oh, good. The woman who had been crying appears to be calming down. Still obviously shaken up, but hopefully able to answer a few questions.

A Mother’s Perspective

The woman identifies herself as Mary, and she was indeed the mother of Jesus. Her husband Joseph had died a few years earlier. Mary explains to you that there was always something special about Jesus. Sure, she has to say that. After all, she was His mother. But there’s something about they way she says it that makes you want to believe it. She goes on to claim that her son was a righteous man, devoted to the Scriptures and committed to doing God’s will. He spent his time doing good and teaching others to do the same. She says that, above all, he proclaimed the Kingdom of God. She even goes so far as to call him the “Son of God”. Wow, this really is a mother!

According to her, this was all a set-up; Jesus had done nothing to deserve this. But oddly, she doesn’t seem angry. Sure, she’s grieving, but it’s like there’s more to the story. So you press a little harder.

Mary explains that Jesus’ death was all part of a greater plan. Denial? Maybe. Just a couple more questions. You ask the identities of the others who were with her. Would you believe that three of the four women were named Mary? One of them, Mary Magdalene, had been freed by Jesus from demon-possession.

There was a man with Mary, too. His name was John. You find out he had been one of Jesus’ students… a real disciple. Odd that he’s the only one there. After all, Jesus had a dozen or so disciples who traveled with him; where were the rest? You’ll have to track them down later. Mary explains that Jesus and John were especially close and that—while Jesus was dying on the cross—he instructed John to care for her.

You’ve got all you need from Mary, but you can’t resist asking one more question. And yes, with a smile, Mary still maintains that it was a virgin birth.

Improper Procedures

This man is sounding less and less like a criminal to you, especially considering his reputation as a moral leader and teacher. Not the stereotypical sociopath. Oh, He had enemies. Mainly people who were jealous or felt threatened by him. Strangely enough, most of those enemies were the religious leaders from the Temple! The Temple had become a little too political for your liking, anyhow.

What role did those religious leaders play in all of this? You decide it’s time to check the court documents to see what exactly led to Jesus being sentenced to death. What you find shocks you. You’ve never seen a case with so many broken rules… so many unanswered questions and breeches of conduct. You even question the legality of the verdict, considering the irregularities:

  • Jesus was arrested at after dark. According to the law, an arrest could not be made at night.
  • The time and date of the trial were illegal, taking place at night on the eve of the Sabbath.
  • The Sanhedrin—the Jewish Supreme Court—instigated the charges themselves, even though they do not possess that authority.
  • The charges changed during the trial. The initial charge was blasphemy, but somehow morphed into rebellion against Rome.
  • According to the law, two witnesses must be in agreement to merit the death penalty. All you can find, though, are conflicting testimonies and trumped up charges.
  • Jesus was not permitted a defense, even though an exhaustive search into the facts should have occurred.
  • The court did not meet in the regular meeting place of the Sanhedrin, as required by Jewish law, meeting instead in the house of the High Priest.
  • The Sanhedrin initially pronounced the death sentence, which was beyond the scope of their authority.
  • Insufficient time was allotted for deliberation. A guilty verdict could only be pronounced the day following the trial, not the same day as the trial!

You consider filing a grievance, But what’s the use? The abuse of authority appears to permeate through every local level of Jewish and Roman government. Plus, if they’ve colluded in a conspiracy, there’s sure to be a cover-up. You could appeal directly to Rome, but the chances are slim that they’d hear a case from this backwater part of the Empire.

Compliance

You’re greatly disturbed by the blatant abuse of power, but something else bothers you, too. Why did Jesus allow it all to happen? Wasn’t He a miracle worker? What about all the times the religious leaders had tried to do away with Him before? Jesus had always been able to deflect their attempts by just saying the right thing at the right time. What went wrong this time?

You decide to interview one of the arresting officers… a Roman centurion. He reveals that Jesus had been betrayed by one of his own students, Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. You ask how you could contact this student, but you’re informed that the student has already committed suicide. Guess you won’t be interviewing him.

Next, the centurion tells you Jesus offered no resistance. It was as if he was waiting for them. In fact, when one of his disciples pulled out a sword to fight, Jesus stopped him. Not before this disciple had chopped off the ear of one of the guards, though.

Then the officer told you something amazing. Even as he was being arrested, Jesus stooped over, picked up that ear, and somehow reattached it! The officer admits that this frightened him. After all, if this man wielded power like that, what if he wanted to resist the arrest?

You try to talk to some members of the Sanhedrin to discuss the trials, but you’re frustrated when most won’t cooperate. One finally agrees to talk off the record. He expresses that he was personally shocked at the injustice of the trial. In his opinion, Jesus was railroaded—convicted before a trial even occurred. Some members of the Sanhedrin had tried to object, but they were stifled by the leadership. All they could do was stand by and watch as Jesus was abused, unjustly convicted, and sentenced to death.

You’re informed how, since only the Romans were able to execute criminals, Jesus was sent to Pontius Pilate, the local Roman governor. However, because Jesus was from Galilee, Pilate deferred the case to the King Herod who held jurisdiction of that region. Herod questioned Jesus, then returned him to Pilate.

Your source, who had followed Jesus through all four trials plus a couple of interrogations, then reveals something that confounds you: Both Herod and Pilate found Jesus “not guilty” of any crime, but still sentenced Jesus to be flogged and executed.

You’ve got to speak to Pilate himself. After all, Pilate was ultimately responsible for pronouncing the death sentence. So you track him down and, to your surprise, he actually seems to be relieved to talk about it.

Pilate does not exactly have a reputation for showing compassion, but this particular decision has not been sitting well with him. He did not believe Jesus was guilty of any crime, he knew the witnesses were lying, and his own wife urged him to let Jesus go, but he gave in to the political pressure of the religious leaders and sentenced Jesus to death anyway. Then, as if trying to justify what he had done, he describes how Jesus refused to defend himself, his own disciples deserted him, and none of the people he had healed rose to his defense. Clearly Pilate had acted unjustly, but he apparently wants to wash his hands of the whole matter.

Instead of finding answers, you’re more confused than ever. Why would Jesus remain silent? He had been given plenty of opportunities to talk; did Jesus want to die?

That student—John—is still nearby. Time to question him about Jesus’ state of mind.

John tells you how, just before the arrest, Jesus had eaten supper with his followers. During the meal, Jesus announced that he would be betrayed by one of them and taken away to die. Did Jesus have a death wish?

After supper, John and the rest went with Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane. Upon arriving, Jesus went off by Himself to pray, but John remained close enough to overhear Jesus pleading to God the Father to let him live. Then John added, “I don’t know if this means anything or not, but when Jesus came back from praying it looked like he had been sweating drops of blood.”

You’ve only seen it once or twice before, but you recognize this as a response to extreme stress. It appears Jesus was desperate to live. He had no death wish after all.

Why, then, did he just allow it all to happen? From everything you know of Jesus, he was more than capable of preventing his death. Whether verbally or through some display of power, Jesus could have beat the charges. What motivated him to submit to this charade?

Connecting the Dots

You’re running out of time. The sky is growing dark, which means the Passover celebration is about to begin. Hmmm, the Passover. You allow your mind to wander, recalling how—1500 years earlier—the Israelites had lived as slaves in Egypt. In order to force their release, God had caused the Egyptians to suffer a series of plagues, the last being the death of the firstborn child in every family. The only homes that were spared were the Israelite homes, which had identified themselves by slaughtering a lamb and smearing the blood on the doorframe of the house. The death angel passed over those homes, and the Israelites were set free just hours later.

You head back to your office to review your notes, trying to put it all together. You consider how ironic it is that you’re dealing with this case at Passover. This man—Jesus—had been slaughtered just like a lamb. It reminds you of something from the prophecy of Isaiah. Pulling out a copy of the scroll, you read the passage…

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace. He was whipped, and we were healed! All of us have strayed away like sheep. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the LORD laid on him the guilt and sins of us all.
He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. From prison and trial they led him away to his death. But who among the people realized that he was dying for their sins—that he was suffering their punishment? He had done no wrong, and he never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal…
And because of what he has experienced, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.
(Isaiah 53:4-9, 11, NLT)

Hmm. Didn’t John the Baptist actually refer to Jesus as “the Lamb of God”? What if this prophecy were about Jesus? But that couldn’t be, could it? If it were, then Jesus was not merely a man; He was also the Son of God.

His death, then, would be part of a greater plan, just as His mother had said. As the death of the Passover lamb signified freedom and deliverance for the Israelites, the death of the Lamb of God could mean freedom and deliverance for you… freedom from sin and deliverance to a new life with God, just as Isaiah had foretold. If all that were true, it would explain why Jesus allowed Himself to be killed; His death would mean life for you.

You realize history will record that Jesus was put to death at the hands of the Romans at the urging of the Jews. Even though you are convinced there was a conspiracy to kill Him, though, your official report will conclude, “Jesus willingly gave His life for me.”

As you close your report, you know that—if you’re right—this isn’t the end of the story. Smiling, you contemplate what the next few days may hold.