THE THREE DEATHS OF CHRIST
16 So he delivered him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus, 17 and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. 19 Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” 23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, 24 so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says,“They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” So the soldiers did these things, 25 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. 28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
— John 19:16-30, ESV
After three years of ministry, a three-part prayer to conclude it, three trials, and three denials by His closest disciple, Jesus died, three times. If this sounds unusual, it is. There is no one else like Jesus and there has never been another death like His. The three ways in which Christ died, which is what is meant by three deaths, testifies to three things: His humanity, His deity, and His ability to reconcile man with God.
Jesus Died a Physical Death
The “he” who sent Jesus to the cross is Pilate, a physical, historical, real human being. The “them” who took Jesus to the cross includes everyone else, including the Roman soldiers (no amateur militia this time), the Jewish religious rulers (let’s boo the Pharisees one more time), the Passover mob, Barabbas, Simon Peter, and an innumerable list of other real people that, for spiritual reasons we will discuss later, includes you and me. Real people crucified a real person, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It happened in a real place, too, just outside the old city of Jerusalem. “Golgotha” in Aramaic means skull, so the place where Jesus was crucified is believed to be a hill where the cuts in the limestone make a resemblance to a human skull. The word is “cranion” in Greek, from where we get our English word cranium. In Latin it is “Calvary,” the preferred term in verse and song. I’ve stood in the two places that lay claim to Calvary, General Gordon’s Tomb, where a skull-like hill lurks just past the grave, and The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where everything is obscured by medieval architecture and mean-spirited priests. While the latter is probably the right place, the point is it was a real place where a real person was really put to death.
It was really painful, too, beyond words. Jesus had not slept in twenty-four hours or more before the crucifixion began. It started with scourging, a far cry from the flogging previously inflicted. Scourging employed a whip with lashes infused with stone and bone swung by a skillful Roman soldier. The idea was torture, and no one did it better than ancient Rome. The intent was to take the condemned criminal, in this case Jesus, down to within an inch of his life before nailing what is left of Him to the cross.
Then, the Lord was forced (an oxymoron, I know) to carry the horizontal beam of His own cross from Pilate’s courtyard to Calvary, where the vertical post has already been installed. The Son of God had emptied Himself of some of the prerogatives of deity to take on humanity, including omnipresence (He could only be in one place at one time), omniscience (He left the information with the Father as to the exact time of His second coming), and omnipotence (He had not the strength to carry the cross all the way, as the other Gospel writers attest). Weakened as He was, it still took Jesus about six hours to die.
During the deathwatch, Jesus’ blood flowed freely from “His hands, His head, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down” (Isaac Watts). The position of crucifixion made it almost impossible to breathe, and the pain Jesus had to endure sent His body into apoplectic shock. By the time He died, Jesus’ lungs had most likely folded and His heart had completely collapsed. It sounds trite, but it is true, Jesus died of a broken heart.
The God-man was a real man, and Jesus died an excruciating physical death. And yet, that was not the hardest part.
Jesus Died an Emotional Death
The Outlaw Josey Wales said, “Dying is easy, living is hard.” Living those final hours before His death was harder than death itself, for Jesus, and not for the physical reasons. The combined betrayal, arrest, kangaroo court trials, and crucifixion caused Jesus to process emotional suffering of infinite proportions. Jesus didn’t just die of a physically broken heart, He died of utter emotional embarrassment.
Imagine being completely innocent of a capital crime, yet being sentenced to death anyway. It happens in fiction, just ask Andy Dufresne. It happens in real life, just ask one of the families to whom the DNA evidence was revealed too late. It happened to the Lord Jesus Christ, just ask John or the other Gospel writers. Jesus bore the shame of being convicted and crucified between two actual killers and thieves.
Imagine having your unjust sentence carried out in the open public, and being stripped naked for all to see. Then Jesus watch as the soldiers who were killing Him began to fight and gamble over His clothes. Townspeople and Passover pilgrims walked by and hurled insults, along with one of the co-condemned criminals. The whole process added ultimate insult to insufferable injury.
Imagine the pain of asking John the beloved disciple to take care of His beloved mother, Mary. Having her there with the other Marys was hard, anyway, but His brothers’ absence and lack of accountability may have been worse. At His death, Jesus could not trust James and Jude, because they had yet to trust in Jesus.
Imagine having to beg for water from the hands of Roman soldiers who had beaten you half to death and were crucifying you to complete the task. Instead of a cup of cool water, they gave the Lord a sponge soaked with wine so old and rancid it had turned to vinegar. Few things, if any, taste worse. That was the last straw, for immediately afterward Jesus quit this life.
John chose not to record the worst part, the moment at which God the Son was forsaken by God the Father. “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.” This Gospel writer did not go there, so we will leave it for another time, a different Gospel. But imagine what it must have felt like to be forsaken by your Father, while your mother and the world watched, as you die the most degrading death ever known to mankind.
Anxiety, depression, and loneliness are not sins. The sinless Son of God, Jesus Christ, felt them all on the cross, and they contributed to His death. Jesus died of pain and suffering. The pain was physical, the suffering was emotional. Then, at the very end, Christ’s death became spiritual as John’s commentary ends with, “He gave up His spirit.”
Jesus Died a Spiritual Death
I often quote a profound lyric by Jackson Browne, “I don’t know what happens when people die, Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try, It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear, That I can’t sing, But I can’t help listening.”
I’ve been listening to Jesus die for almost forty years, ever since I started reading the Bible and pouring over the Gospels. Understanding His death is difficult, but therein lies the key to life. You have to look at it three ways, as three deaths.
The physical death makes no sense, not on its own. Why would an innocent man, yea verily the world’s only perfect man, allow Himself to be put to death by the most graphic, horrific means ever known to man? This was not justice. This does not bring peace.
The emotional extremes are senseless, too. That Jesus allowed Himself to be betrayed, arrested, convicted, and killed is one thing. But that Almighty God would die while mere mortal men with minuscule souls mocked Him is beyond the pale. There is no justice, no peace, not in this kind of pain, not without some kind of higher purpose.
No justice, no peace, a familiar cry. This present life can offer no perfect version of either. But in the third death of Christ, the spiritual death, there is perfect justice and perfect peace.
Think about the last word Jesus spoke, one solitary word in the Greek New Testament, “Tetelestai.” It is three words in English, “It is finished.” It is a servant’s word, uttered when his work is done. It is a merchants word, written on the bill of sale when the final payment is made. It is a spiritual word, perfectly spoken at Jesus’ ultimate death, when He “gave up His spirit.”
John’s Gospel records a few of the dozen or so prophecies fulfilled at Christ’s death. They include the fact He was executed among criminals, had lots cast for His clothes, thirsted to death, was pierced with a sword instead of having His legs broken, and was aptly and legally named, “The King of the Jews,” His messianic title. But the title that best befits the work of Christ on the cross is “Suffering Servant,” the person prophesied by Isaiah, especially in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
In the spiritual role of Suffering Servant, and with His physical and emotional and spiritual death on the cross, Jesus Christ met the demands of divine justice required for man to have peace with God. Divine justice demands death for sin. Divine peace offers a sacrifice, or substitute, for sinners. This is the gospel: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (ref. Romans 5:8); and, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ref. John 3:16).
Looking at Jesus’ death three ways is the only way to make sense of the cross. It reveals the path of absolute justice and perpetual peace. It preaches the gospel of the God-man, Jesus, and the salvation God gives to man, by grace alone through faith alone in the, not one, not two, but the three deaths of the Lord Jesus Christ.