Sunday, April 08, 2012

John 19:16-37 - A Medical View of the Crucifixion

Crucifixion: Christ Dies (James Tissot)
Opening thought
Today we celebrate the single most important event in human history. The Crucifixion, Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus revolutionized world history, making Jesus the most important historical figure ever to have lived, died, lived again and is still living right now. 

Those events bifurcated world history so that time is measured before and after Jesus’ life. Those events transformed all cosmic history and opened the only way in which a person can receive the free gift of eternal life, the only way one can physically die and be immediately and permanently present in an eternal Paradise with this same Jesus.

Why did he do it? Why did Jesus come to earth in the form of a man and consent to give his life on the Cross? Romans 5:7-8 tells us that “very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Why did he do it? He did it because he loved us and wanted to rescue us from an eternity of paying the price of sin in a real, tangible place of permanent punishment called Hell.

How did he do it? He did it by giving his life as a sacrifice, consenting to being nailed to a torturous form of Roman persecution on a wooden cross. The crucifixion is what we will talk about today, specifically the medical aspects of it.

Key Truth: John wrote John 19:16-37 to show readers the suffering of Jesus in the Crucifixion.
Key Application: Today I want to show you what God’s Word says about Jesus’ suffering.
Pray and Read:  John 19:16-37

Sermon Points:

a.   Dr. C. Truman Davis some years ago investigated and gave a medical explanation of what Jesus endured on the day He died.[1] Having realized that for years he had taken the Crucifixion more or less for granted and grown callous to its horror by a too easy familiarity with the grim details and a too distant friendship with our Lord. It finally occurred to him that, though a physician, he didn't even know the actual immediate cause of death. The Gospel writers don't help us much on this point, because crucifixion and scourging were so common during their lifetime that they apparently considered a detailed description unnecessary. So we have only the concise words of the Evangelists: "Pilate, having scourged Jesus, delivered Him to them to be crucified -- and they crucified Him" (Mark 15:15).
b.   No one is competent to explain the infinite psychological and spiritual suffering of the Incarnate God atoning for the sins of fallen man, but as a physician we can examine the physiological and anatomical aspects of our Lord's passion at some detail. What did the body of Jesus of Nazareth actually endure during those hours of torture?
c.    Origin - Crucifixion itself is torture and execution by fixation to a cross. A French surgeon, Dr. Pierre Barbet, has done exhaustive historical and experimental research and has written extensively on the subject. The Persians were the first known to practice crucifixion. Alexander the Great and his generals brought crucifixion back from his conquest of Persia to Egypt and to Carthage. The Romans apparently learned the practice from the Carthaginians and (typical of the Romans) rapidly developed a very high degree of efficiency and skill at it. In ancient literature, Roman writers such as Livy, Cicero, and Tacitus comment on crucifixion and its Roman innovations, modifications, and variations.
d.   Mechanics - For instance, the upright portion of the cross (or stipes) could have the cross-arm (or patibulum) attached two or three feet below its top in what we commonly think of as the Latin cross. The most common form used in our Lord's day, however, was the Tau cross, shaped like our T. In this cross the patibulum was placed in a notch at the top of the stipes. There is archeological evidence that it was on this type of cross that Jesus was crucified. Medieval and Renaissance painters have given us our picture of Christ carrying the entire cross, but the upright post, or stipes, was generally fixed permanently in the ground at the site of execution and the condemned man was forced to carry the patibulum, weighing about 110 pounds, from the prison to the place of execution.
e.   Many of the painters and most of the sculptors of crucifixion also show the nails through the palms. Historical Roman accounts and experimental work have established that the nails were driven between the small bones of the wrists (radial and ulna) and not through the palms. Nails driven through the palms strip out between the fingers and cannot support the weight of the human body. The misconception may have come about through a misunderstanding of Jesus' words to Thomas, "Observe my hands." Anatomists, both modern and ancient, have always considered the wrist as part of the hand.
f.    A titulus, or small sign or title, stating the victim's crime was usually placed on a staff, carried at the front of the procession from the prison, and later nailed to the cross so that it extended above the head. This sign with its staff nailed to the top of the cross would have given it somewhat the characteristic form of the Latin cross.
g.   Passion began at Gethsemane - But, of course, the physical passion of the Christ began in Gethsemane. Of the many aspects of this initial suffering, the one of greatest physiological interest is the bloody sweat. It is interesting that Luke, the physician, is the only one to mention this. He says, "And being in agony, He prayed the longer. And His sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground” (Luke 22:43-44). Modern scholars have used every ruse imaginable to explain away Luke’s description, but if they had simply consulted the medical literature, all that effort would have been unnecessary. Though very rare, the phenomenon of hematidrosis, or bloody sweat, is well documented. Under great emotional stress of the kind our Lord suffered, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, thus mixing blood with sweat. This process might well have produced marked weakness and possible shock.
h.   Before the Sanhedrin - After the arrest in the middle of the night, Jesus was next brought before the Sanhedrin and Caiaphas, the High Priest; it is here that the first physical trauma was inflicted. A soldier struck Jesus across the face for remaining silent when questioned by Caiaphas. The palace guards then blind-folded Him and mockingly taunted Him to identify them as they each passed by, spat upon Him, and struck Him in the face (Luke 22:63-65).
i.     Before Pontius Pilate - In the early morning, battered and bruised, dehydrated, and exhausted from a sleepless night, Jesus is taken across the Praetorium of the Fortress Antonia, the seat of government of the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate (John 18:28-39). After passing him to Herod Antipas, then back to Pilate, it is in response to the mob (Luke 22:66-23:23; John 19:14-15), that Pilate ordered Barabbas released and condemned Jesus to scourging and crucifixion (Luke 23:24-25; John 18:40; 19:16).
Bouguereau, The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1880)
j.    Scourging – The Prisoner was prepared for scourging by being stripped of His clothing and His hands tied to a post above His head. The Romans probably did not follow Jewish law which prohibited more than forty lashes. The Roman legionnaire steps forward with the flagrum (or flagellum) in his hand. This is a short whip consisting of several heavy, leather thongs with two small balls of lead attached near the ends of each. The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across Jesus' shoulders, back, and legs. At first the thongs cut through the skin only. Then, as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles. The small balls of lead first produce large, deep bruises which are broken open by subsequent blows. Finally the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue. When the centurion in charge determines that the prisoner is near death, the beating is finally stopped. The half-fainting Jesus is then untied and allowed to slump to the stone pavement, wet with His own blood.
k.   The Insults - The Roman soldiers see a great joke in this provincial Jew claiming to be king. They throw a robe across His shoulders and place a stick in His hand for a scepter. They still need a crown to make their travesty complete. Flexible branches covered with long thorns (commonly used in bundles for firewood) are plaited into the shape of a crown and this is pressed into His scalp (John 19:1-3). Again there is copious bleeding, the scalp being one of the most vascular areas of the body. After mocking Him and striking Him across the face (Luke 22:63-65), the soldiers take the stick from His hand and strike Him across the head, driving the thorns deeper into His scalp. Finally, they tire of their sadistic sport and the robe is torn from His back. Already having adhered to the clots of blood and serum in the wounds, its removal causes excruciating pain just as in the careless removal of a surgical bandage, and almost as though He were again being whipped the wounds once more begin to bleed.
l.     The Via Dolorosa - In deference to Jewish custom, the Romans return His garments. The heavy patibulum of the cross is tied across His shoulders, and the procession of the condemned Christ, two thieves, and the execution detail of Roman soldiers headed by a centurion begins its slow journey along the Via Dolorosa (John 19:17-18). In spite of His efforts to walk erect, the weight of the heavy wooden beam, together with the shock produced by copious blood loss, is too much. He stumbles and falls. The rough wood of the beam gouges into the lacerated skin and muscles of the shoulders. He tries to rise, but those human muscles have been pushed beyond their endurance. The centurion, anxious to get on with the crucifixion, selects a stalwart North African onlooker, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross (Luke 23:26). Jesus follows, still bleeding and sweating a cold, clammy sweat of shock, until the journey from Fortress Antonia to Golgotha is completed.
m. At Golgotha - Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh, a mild analgesic mixture (Luke 23:36-37). He refuses to drink. Simon is ordered to place the patibulum on the ground and Jesus quickly thrown backward with His shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of the wrist. He drives a heavy, square, wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood. Quickly, he moves to the other side and repeats the action being careful not to pull the arms too tightly, but to allow some flexion and movement. The patibulum is then lifted in place at the top of the stipes and the titulus reading "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" is nailed in place (John 19:19-22). The left foot is now pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees moderately flexed. The Victim is now crucified. As He slowly sags down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms to explode in the brain -- the nails in the wrists put pressure on the median nerves. As He pushes Himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, He places His full weight on the nail through His feet. Again there is the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the metatarsal bones of the feet.
Tissot, Jesus' View from the Cross
n.   Agony of the Cross - At this point, as the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by his arms, the pectoral muscles are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles between the ribs are unable to act. Air can be drawn into the lungs, but cannot be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically, he is able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in the life-giving oxygen. It was undoubtedly during these periods that He uttered the seven short sentences recorded: The first, looking down at the Roman soldiers throwing dice for His seamless garment, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The second, to the penitent thief, "Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). The third, looking down at the terrified, grief-stricken adolescent John -- the beloved Apostle -- he said, "Behold thy mother." Then, looking to His mother Mary, "Woman behold thy son" (John 19:26-27). The fourth cry is from Psalm 22:1, "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:45-46; Mark 15:34).
o.   His Suffering: Hours of limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain where tissue is torn from His lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber. Then another agony begins...A terrible crushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart. One remembers Psalm 22:14: "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels."
p.   His Death - It is now almost over. The loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level; the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissue; the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. The markedly dehydrated tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain. Jesus gasps His fifth cry, "I thirst” (John 19:28). One remembers another verse from Psalm 22:15: "My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou has brought me into the dust of death.” A sponge soaked in posca, the cheap, sour wine which is the staple drink of the Roman legionaries, is lifted to His lips (John 19:29; Matt 27:48). The body of Jesus is now in extremes. He can feel the chill of death creeping through His tissues. This realization brings out His sixth words, possibly little more than a tortured whisper, "It is finished” (John 19:30). His mission of atonement has completed. Finally He can allow his body to die. With one last surge of strength, he once again presses His torn feet against the nail, straightens His legs, takes a deeper breath, and utters His seventh and last cry, "Father! Into thy hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46; Matt 27:50).
Crucifixion night: Jesus' body taken down (Varashchagen)
q.   Piercing His Side - The rest is known. In order that the Sabbath not be profaned, the Jews asked that the condemned men be dispatched and removed from the crosses. The common method of ending a crucifixion was by crurifracture, the breaking of the bones of the legs. This prevented the victim from pushing himself upward; thus the tension could not be relieved from the muscles of the chest and rapid suffocation occurred. The legs of the two thieves were broken, but when the soldiers came to Jesus they saw that this was unnecessary (John 19:31-33). Apparently to make doubly sure of death, the legionnaire drove his lance through the fifth interspace between the ribs, upward through the pericardium and into the heart. John 19:34 reports: "And immediately there came out blood and water.” That is, there was an escape of water fluid from the sac surrounding the heart, giving postmortem evidence that Our Lord died not the usual crucifixion death by suffocation, but of heart failure (a broken heart) due to shock and constriction of the heart by fluid in the pericardium.
r.    This is a glimpse of medical evidence of that epitome of evil which Jesus endured for our sakes. How grateful we can be that Sunday came. Victory came. Resurrection came. That tortured Frame was brought back from the dead. Jesus stood up on the third day and defeated Hell and the Grave.
Only through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ has the riddle of death been uncovered and defeated. Death has lost it sting and the grave has lost its victory. "Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." Those who trust in Him and confess Him as Lord have this wonderful promise.

So let me ask you a question. Are you trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross, or are you trusting in your baptism? Are you trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross, or are you trusting in the time you walked the aisle and the pastor prayed with you? Are you trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross, or are you trusting in your church membership? Are you trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross, or are you trusting in your grandmother’s prayers? Are you trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross, or are you trusting in your good works? There is nothing that you have that holds the power of the finished work of Jesus. Won’t you trust in Jesus and His finished work on the cross right now?

[1] C. Truman Davis, M.D., “A Physician Examines the Crucifixion: A medical explanation of what Jesus endured on the day He died,” Originally published in Arizona Medicine, Arizona Medical Association, March 1965. This version is from The Review of the NEWS, April 14, 1976, found at Dr. C. Truman Davis is a graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine. He is a nationally respected ophthalmologist, vice president of the American Association of Ophthalmology, a pastor, and an active figure in the Christian schools movement. He is founder and president of Trinity Christian School in Mesa, Arizona, a trustee of Grove City College, and author of a book about medicine and the Bible.