A Time to Die
August 4, 1991
3 P.M. Friday afternoon. It’s another hot day in Jerusalem. Things are worse now. More blood. More screams. More gore. The insects swarm around the three naked bodies. There are shouts, restless words from the crowd. Several hundred people have gathered at Skull Hill to watch the end.
It hasn’t been an ordinary day. Not that you could ever call crucifixion ordinary. But the Romans did it all the time. It was their favored method for dealing with criminals and troublemakers. There were plenty of easier ways to kill people—and the Romans knew all about those ways, too—but crucifixion had its advantage. The primary one being that crucifixion was such a gruesome spectacle that it caught the public attention in a way that something mundane like poisoning could never do.
But this time the Romans had hit the Daily Double, so to speak. They were crucifying three men on the eve of the Jewish Passover. That meant the city would be clogged with religious pilgrims. The message would come through loud and clear—Don’t mess with us.
Things had started well enough. The three men were crucified at 9 A.M.—the normal starting time. The crowd was larger than usual, mostly because of the man in the middle, one Jesus of Nazareth. The hard part was nailing the men to the cross. At best it was a bloody ordeal. If the victims struggled (and most of them did), the thing could turn into a gory mess. But the man in the middle had not struggled at all. He looked half-dead before they laid him on the cross. The scourging must have taken a lot out of him.
The first three hours were no problem. The three men spoke to one another briefly and people in the crowd shouted various things—mostly jeers and taunts. Jesus seemed to a have a following of people—friends and family—who came to watch the proceedings. They didn’t say much.
Three Hours of Darkness
Everything changed at 12 noon. Suddenly everything went dark. The sun disappeared—just like that—and thick darkness settled over the land. It was the darkness of a cave in the middle of the night, thick, ugly darkness that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
It lasted for three hours. At 3 P.M., the sun came out just as suddenly as it had disappeared. All eyes were drawn to the center cross. Something had happened to Jesus during those three hours, exactly what was hard to say. The other two looked awful, the way men always do when they are crucified, but Jesus was different. Something terrible had happened to him during that three hours of darkness, some awful burden that had descended on him and sucked out what little life was left in him. You didn’t have to be a doctor to know that he was about to die.
His chest heaved mightily with each breath, his eyes looked faraway, his voice was little more than a guttural groan, the death rattle was in his throat. Suddenly he shouted something and somebody shouted back to him. Then the soldiers moistened his lips with a sponge stuck on the end of a hyssop stalk. His head dropped, he took another breath, he shouted one word, “Tetelestai!,” and it seemed as if he had died. A moment passed, then he took one final breath, and shouted, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Then he bowed his head and his whole body seemed to slump forward.
Stunned silence. Followed by, “Surely, this was the Son of God.” Shock. “Who was that man?” Anger now, and fear on the faces of the crowd. Here and there, soft sobs and quiet tears. Much later came the spear in the side, but Jesus was long dead at that point.
This is how Luke the physician tells the story of the last moments of Jesus’ life:
It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:44-46)
Luke is the only writer to record the last words of the Son of God: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Every word tells us something important:
Father—This was Jesus’ favorite title for God. It spoke of the intimate family relationship that had existed from all eternity. His first word from the cross had been, “Father, forgive them.” His last word was, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” But in between he had cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He called him, “My God” and not “Father” because in that agonizing moment, the Father turned his back on the Son as Jesus bore the sin of the world. God forsaken by God! But no longer. Jesus dies with the knowledge that the price has been fully paid, the cup emptied, the burden borne, estrangement ended. Whatever happened in those three mysterious hours of darkness is now in the past. Jesus yields his life to the One he called “Father.”
Into your hands—O, the touch of a father’s hands. What son does not long for his father to reach out and embrace him? There is something wonderful about this expression. It speaks of safety—”I am safe in my father’s hands”—and of greeting—”Welcome home, Son”—and of love—”Daddy, it’s so good to see you again”—and of approval—”I’m so proud of you, Son.”
For 15 hours Jesus has been in the hands of wicked men. With their hands, they beat him. With their hands, they slapped him. With their hands, they abused him. With their hands, they crowned him with thorns. With their hands, they ripped out his beard. With their hands, they smashed him black and blue. With their hands, they whipped his back until it was torn to bits.
All that is behind him now. Wicked hands have done all they can do. Jesus now returns to his Father’s hands.
I commit—The word means to deposit something valuable in a safe place. It’s what you do when you take your will and your most valuable possessions and put them in a safe-deposit box at the bank.
My spirit—By this phrase, Jesus meant his very life, his personal existence. Now that his physical life was over, Jesus commits himself into his Father’s hands for safe keeping. “Father, I can no longer care for myself. I place myself in your good hands for safe-keeping.”
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
You may not know that these words are a quotation from Scripture. With his final words, Jesus recited Psalm 31:5 and simply added the word “Father” to the front of the quotation. Jewish mothers would teach their child-ren to recite that verse every night before they went to bed. For many children, it would be the first verse of Scripture they ever learned.
On the cross, as his life is ebbing away, Jesus reverts to the prayer of his childhood, the prayer his mother taught him in Nazareth, the prayer with which he ended each day. In the end, his strength gone, his body tor-tured almost beyond recognition, his mind recalls the words he learned as a little boy—”Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” The prayer has the same meaning and effect as the prayer many of our children pray each night: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to take.”
Sometimes we wonder if our children pay any attention when we recite Scripture and sing to them at bedtime. Often it seems as if our words go in one ear and out the other. But those little ears hear more than we know, and the heart remembers far more than we realize. No one can overestimate the value of patiently teaching the truth of God to our children day in and day out. What seems to be wasted time may some day be the only thing they can remember.
The End of the Story
The moment has come. Jesus has only seconds to live. All that he came to do has been accomplished. It is time to die. Two things happened at the very end of his life that merit our attention.
1. His Physical Sufferings Reached Their Climax. The pain now is unbearable. Breathing is almost impossible. The crowd gathers round, like vultures circling their prey. The friends of Jesus watch in horror as his life ebbs away. Death rattles in his throat. From somewhere down below, a fiendish, evil howling. The angels look away. The Son of God is about to die.
What was it like to die by crucifixion? Several years ago two doctors on the staff of the Mayo Clinic enlisted the help of a Methodist pastor to answer that question. Their research was published in the most prestigious medical journal in America—The Journal of the American Medical Association. (March 21, 1986, pp. 1455-1463) The article was entitled “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” They surveyed the ancient literature on the subject of crucifixion along with the best modern historical research.
They begin by describing the Roman practice of flogging:
As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim’s back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions, and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. (p. 1457)
They then describe the results of scourging:
The severe scourging, with its intense pain and appreciable blood loss, most probably left Jesus in a preshock state … The physical and mental abuse meted out by the Jews and the Romans, as well as the lack of food, water, and sleep, also contributed to his generally weakened state. Therefore, even before the actual crucifixion, Jesus’ physical condition was at least serious and possibly critical. (p. 1458)
The authors then give a detailed description of various crucifixion practices. They note that the crossbar Jesus was compelled to carry weighed 75-125 pounds. Iron spikes (approximately 5-7 inches long) were driven into his wrists and his feet just above the toes. Criminals were normally crucified naked, unless forbidden by local custom. Once crucified the victim was exposed to the elements, including insects which would burrow into the open wounds or the eyes, nose and ears.
Because of the scourging, the victim’s back became a virtual open sore.
When the victim was thrown to the ground on his back, in preparation for transfixion of his hands, his scourging wounds most likely would become torn open again and contaminated with dirt. Furthermore, with each respiration, the painful scourging wounds would be scraped against the rough wood of the stipes. As a result, blood loss from the back probably would continue throughout the crucifixion ordeal. (p. 1460)
But the worst was yet to come. Once the cross was raised, breathing became progressively more difficult until it finally became impossible.
The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion, beyond the excruciating pain, was a marked interference with normal respiration, particularly exhalation. The weight of the body, pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would tend to fix the intercostal muscles in an inhalation state and thereby hinder passive exhalation …
Adequate exhalation required lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by flexing the elbows and adducting the shoulders. However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of the body on the tarsals and would produce searing pain. Furthermore, flexion of the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists about the iron nails and cause fiery pain along the damaged median nerves. Lifting of the body would also painfully scrape the scourged back against the rough wooden stipes. (p. 1461)
The authors then summarize the biblical material in a remarkably concise manner:
The soldiers and the civilian crowd taunted Jesus throughout the ordeal, and the soldiers cast lots for his clothing. Christ spoke seven times from the cross. Since speech occurs during exhalation, these short, terse utterances must have been particularly difficult and painful. About 3 P.M. that Friday, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, bowed his head, and died. The Roman soldiers and onlookers recognized his moment of death. (p. 1462)
Only one question is left unresolved. What was the ultimate cause of his death after only a few hours on the cross? Concerning this question, the authors offer two possible answers:
Jesus’ death after only three to six hours on the cross surprised even Pontius Pilate. The fact that Jesus cried out in a loud voice and then bowed his head and died suggests the possibility of a catastrophic terminal event. One popular explanation has been that Jesus died of cardiac rupture…
However, another explanation may be more likely. Jesus’ death may have been hastened simply by his state of exhaustion and by the severity of his scourging, with its resultant blood loss and preshock state. (p. 1463)
All of this leads to a very simple conclusion: “Death by crucifixion was, in every sense of the word, excruciating.” (p. 1461). It is a perfectly chosen word, because excruciating comes from the Latin excruciatus, which means “out of the cross.”
2. He Voluntarily Gave Up His Life. This may seem at odds with the gruesome account given above. Christ was arrested and tried like a common criminal. He was beaten within an inch of his life. He suffered the terrible ordeal of crucifixion and died an agonizing death. Surely his life was forcibly taken from him.
Not so. Jesus himself addressed this question in John 10:17-18.
The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.
This perfectly harmonizes the gospel accounts of the death of Christ. Matthew 27:50 tells us that at the moment of his death, Jesus “dismissed his spirit.” That is, he voluntarily yielded it up to the Father. His life was not taken from him against his will; when the time came, he gave up his life voluntarily. To the very end, the Son of God remained sovereign over the affairs of men.
From all of this we may draw several lessons and applications:
1. He knew it was time to die.
2. He wasn’t afraid to die.
3. He died with his life complete.
4. He died without anger or bitterness.
5. He died in complete control of his senses and his circumstances.
6. He died knowing where he was going—back into the Father’s hands.
The death of Jesus is a model of how the faithful face death. They are not afraid. They are not filled with remorse over wasted opportunities. They endure their portion with grace, knowing that a better day awaits on the other side of the great divide. If they suffer, they hold fast to the promises of God as their only hope. They do nothing to hasten the moment, but when it finally comes, they have courage to face it for they have commit-ted themselves completely into their Father’s hands.
And so Jesus died like a child asleep in his father’s arms. Exhausted, weary, having suffered the worst that man could do, he finally yielded up his life and breathed his last. It was a quiet ending, a graceful exit, a peaceful passing from the brutality of this world.
Take Me Home
Max Lucado paints an unforgettable word picture of what Jesus’ death was like seen from the perspective of heaven:
(No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, pp. 65-75)
Were it a war—this would be the aftermath.
Were it a symphony—this would be the second between the final note and the first applause.
Were it a journey—this would be the sight of home.
Were it a storm—this would be the sun, piercing the clouds.
But it wasn’t. It was a Messiah. And this was a sigh of Joy.
“Father!” (The voice is hoarse.)
The voice that called forth the dead,
the voice that taught the willing,
the voice that screamed at God,
Now says, “Father!” “Father.”
The two are one again.
The abandoned is now found.
The schism is now bridged.
“Father.” He smiles weakly. “It’s over.”
Satan’s vulture have been scattered.
Hell’s demons have been jailed.
Death has been damned.
The sun is out. The Son is out.
An angel sighs. A star wipes away a tear.
“Take me home.”
Yes, take him home.
Take this prince to his king.
Take this son to his father.
Take this pilgrim to his home. (He deserves a rest.)
“Take me home.”
Come ten thousand angels!
Come and take this wounded troubador to the cradle of his Father’s arms!
Farewell manger’s infant
Bless You Holy Ambassador
Go home death slayer
Rest well sweet soldier
The battle is over.
Freed From the Fear of Death
Of all the fears that trouble the heart of man, perhaps none is greater than the fear of death. All of our fears can be rolled up into this greatest fear—we are afraid to die. We fear death because it is so final. We fear death because we are not sure what happens when we die. We fear death because it means leaving the world we know for another world we know nothing about.
Men will do anything to keep from thinking about death. They will drink themselves into a stupor rather than face the reality of their own mortality. They race through life going 1000 miles an hour, rushing from one thing to another in a desperate attempt to keep their mind off the inevitable.
We fear so many things—nuclear war, financial collapse, international intrigue, AIDS, the onset of old age—but behind them all lurks the great unspoken fear of death. It is unspoken because you cannot speak of the things you truly fear. They are too frightening for words.
Death is the final enemy. It is the end of one thing and the beginning of … What? Modern man does not know how to finish that sentence. Therefore he is afraid.
Into the breach steps Jesus Christ and said, “Fear not, for I have conquered death.” He was there. He died just like all men die. And he came back to tell the story. No one else has ever done that.
“Fear not.” You must be joking? Only a fool doesn’t fear death. Only a fool … or a follower of Jesus.
These are the words of Hebrews 2:14-15.
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Who holds the power of death? Satan does. Death belongs to him. Death is his. He owns it. Before Satan was, death was not. When Satan is no more, death will be no more. Between now and then, Satan still rules the realm of death. Men fear death with good reason. They are entering a realm Satan controls.
But the death of Jesus Christ has spoiled Satan’s power. As long as men stayed dead, death was Satan’s ultimate tool to keep men in chains. But one Man changed all that. He died, but he didn’t stay dead. He broke Satan’s power when he tore off the bars of death.
Now no one need fear death any longer. Death still comes to all men, but for those who know Jesus (and only for them), death has changed its character. It is no longer the entrance into the dim unknown. It is now the passageway into the presence of God.
A Little Boy Named Kenneth
In his great sermon “Go Down Death,” (found in A Man Called Peter, pp. 262-274) Peter Marshall tells the story about a little boy he knew who was suffering from a terminal illness. At first he didn’t understand what was happening to him, but as the months passed, and he had to stay inside while his friends went out to play, the truth dawned on him. The idea intrigued him and he wondered what death would be like.
One day his mother was reading to him the stirring tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. She told him of Lancelot and Guinevere and the beautiful maiden Elaine. She read to him of the final glorious battle when so many gallant knights met their death.
At length, she was finished and put the book down. The little boy was silent for a moment. Then he asked the question that had been playing upon his childish mind, the question his mother was dreading to answer. “Mother, what is it like to die? Mother, does it hurt?”
Quick tears sprang to her eyes, so she excused herself to go into the kitchen to compose herself. She knew it was a question of deep significance. She knew she must find a good answer. For a moment she leaned against the kitchen cabinet, her knuckles pressed white against the surface, praying to the Lord for an answer.
And the Lord gave her an answer. In that moment she knew what she should say.
“Kenneth,” she said as she returned to the next room, “Do you remember when you were a little boy and you would play hard all day? When the evening came you would be so tired that when you came in, you would lie down on Mommy and Daddy’s bed and fall asleep.”
“That was not your bed. That was not where you belonged.”
“But you only stayed there a little while. In the morning, you were surprised to wake up and find yourself in your own bed.”
“You were there because someone you loved had come and taken care of you. During the night while you were sleeping, your father came—with big strong arms—and carried you to your own room.”
“Sweetheart, death is just like that. One night you are very tired and very sleepy. We fall asleep and the next morning we wake up to find ourselves in another room—our own room where we belong—because the Lord Jesus has come and with his big arms, he has carried us from our home in this world to our home in heaven.”
The light on the little boy’s face showed that he had understood. And a few days later he fell asleep just as his mother had said.
That is what death is like for the believer.
The Shining Mercy of God
How mistaken we are about death. We think that we are going from the land of the living to the land of the dying. Not so. We are going from the land of the dying to the land of the living. Jesus Christ has said it, and it is so.
As we pass beyond the curtain, we live on and on. But it will not be as it is today. In that day, we rise to new life:
—not with halting limp or wrinkled brow
—not with dimming eyes or faltering steps
—not with twisted spine or runaway tumors
—not with bitter memories or faded dreams
—not with amputated leg or injured heart
No, not with these do we rise. Not clothed with this mortal flesh do we rise. But we rise clothed in the shining mercy of God.
What Happens When We Die?
There is one great lesson we should take away from this story of the final words of the Lord Jesus. Death holds no fear for the Christian, for when we die, we pass from this life into the hands of our Heavenly Father, and he will take care of us.
What happens when we die?
1. Our body is buried and our spirit goes to God.
2. We pass into the personal presence of God.
3. We pass from this life into paradise.
4. We are in the Father’s hands.
These things are true for the followers of Jesus because what happened to him will one day happen to them. Where he leads, they will one day follow.
“Our People Die Well”
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, used to offer this comment as a final apologetic for the evangelical faith: “Our people die well.” Those words sound odd and out-of-place in the 20th century. But several centuries ago it was popular to read books about the art of dying—how to face it with strength and grace. Dying well is one mark of a robust Christian faith. There is such a thing as “dying grace” which the Lord is pleased to give to his children.
We die like the rest of mankind. But we have a hope that transcends the grave. For the followers of Jesus, death has lost its sting and the grave its victory.
What makes the difference? It is Jesus Christ and nothing else. In him and through him and because of him, death has lost its fear for us. Like all men, we prefer to live as long as possible. But when the time comes, we will not shrink back in unspeakable dread. We know One who has been there, and has come back to tell the story. He said, “Fear not. I will be with you.” For those who know Jesus death is not the end but the begin-ning of life.
Our Father, we thank you for a hope that transcends this dying world. We live, we die, and through Jesus Christ, we pass into your loving hands. Teach us to live each day as if it were our last because someday it will be true. In these quiet moments we recommit our lives to you believing that you will be faithful to us, in life and death and in the life to come. We pray these things in the name of Him who conquered death, Jesus our Lord, Amen.