How long was Jesus on the cross and what happened during his last hours? Learn about the last day of Jesus as we look at the timeline of His crucifixion from the early morning to His final hours on the cross. Corresponding Scripture verses are provided for further reference.
Jesus on the Way to Golgotha (Before 9:00 AM)
Notes: The Romans intended crucifixion to be 1) unspeakably cruel; 2) mercilessly lingering (men would often last a day or more on the cross); 3) inescapably public (again, to hinder any seditious impulse in the citizenry); and 4) publicly certifiable (the death had to occur visibly and undeniably on the cross so that the rumor would not get started that the seditionist had somehow survived and the rebellion should go on). Thus, crucifixion was always on a low hill outside the main city gate (because a gate is a bottleneck - a person going into/out of the city must pass that way). Jesus is forced to carry the horizontal piece of the cross to the place of execution, just outside the main gate on the north of the city of Jerusalem.
The First Three Hours of Jesus the Cross (9:00 AM-Noon)
Notes: Jesus is crucified between two criminals. Sunlight remains. The soldiers gamble for Jesus's garments (in fulfillment of Psalms 22:18). The inscription is affixed amid much scoffing. Jesus speaks three times: 1) to His heavenly Father on behalf of His tormentors: "Father, forgive them," 2) to the repentant thief: "Today you shall be with me in paradise," and 3) to His mother and to John: "Woman, behold thy son."
The First Three Sayings of Jesus on the Cross
"Father, forgive them."
The ESV translation of Luke 23:34 says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” These were the first of our Lord’s final words upon the cross, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. In light of what is known about the process of ancient Roman crucifixion, it’s incredible to think that the world’s Greatest Defender was not once found to be defending his own innocence or even returning an angry word upon His deserving accusers.
Rather, the One who came to save, having Himself been forsaken by God in this moment (Mark 15:34), was found interceding for the souls that put Him there, pleading that they themselves would not also be found forsaken. Forgiveness - it's who Jesus is, it's what he taught, and why He came.
By interceding for His transgressors through this prayer, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy that was foretold by Isaiah, hundreds of years prior. This prayer, from upon the cross particularly, would have been a confirmation of His identity to those awaiting their beloved messiah, as described by the prophets of God. (excerpt from Why Did Jesus Say "Father Forgive Them", Amy Swanson)
"Today you will be with me in paradise"
Jesus was blameless, without sin, and was not guilty of such a horrific death, but two men who were guilty of their crimes hung next to Him that fateful day. Both men spoke to Jesus, but only one would die to be greeted into the promise of Heaven. The response of Jesus in this instance was profound to the criminal, as He promised this sinner that he too would enter the gates of Heaven to live in Paradise, not later but that day!
We are not told what this criminal stole to be convicted guilty of, but whatever it was it was worthy of the most severe punishment. Even a crime so terrible that man would consider worthy of death could be forgiven by Jesus. How Christ responded to the criminal next to Him has takeaways for Christians today. No matter how severe the sin, there is opportunity for salvation and forgiveness from Christ—even in the final breaths of life. Jesus died for our transgressions, and in that forgiveness, abides for us. This guilty criminal acknowledged Jesus as Savior, for he acknowledged His Kingdom. Jesus knew his heart and granted the promise that despite earth’s sentence upon this man, he would enter the gates of Heaven that very day. (excerpt from What Did Jesus Mean When He Told the Thief "Today You Will Be with Me in Parradise"?, Cally Logan)
"Woman, behold your son"
Jesus saw his mother, Mary, standing by and knew her cares and griefs, and He saw John standing not far off. So, He established a new relationship between His beloved mother and His beloved disciple. He said to her, "Woman, behold your son, for whom, from now on, you must have a motherly affection," and to John, "Behold you mother, to whom you must pay a sonly duty." And so from that hour, that hour never to be forgotten, that disciple took her to his own home.
He calls her woman, not mother, not out of any disrespect to her, but because mother would have been a cutting word to her who was already wounded with grief. He directs her to look upon John as her son: "Behold him as thy son, who stands there by you, and be as a mother to him." (excerpt from Why Did Jesus Say "Woman Behold Your Son"?,)
The Final Three Hours of Jesus the Cross (Noon-3:00 PM)
Notes: God draws a supernatural darkness over the scene. Jesus, as the Lamb of God, is "forsaken" (i.e., judicially dis-fellowshipped, rejected) by the Father, suffering the agony and torment of spiritual death (i.e., separation from the Father) on behalf of fallen men. (It was the prospect of this spiritual separation that had so horrified Jesus as He contemplated the cross.) Jesus is silent until late in the three hours, and then He speaks four times: 1) in agony, "My God, why...," 2) to those standing by: "I thirst!" (Jesus had something more to say, but His mouth and throat were so parched by the ordeal of crucifixion that He did not have the physical strength to say it; thus this request for moisture for His lips), 3) to a breathlessly waiting world, a cry of sublime victory: "It is finished," and 4) having completed the awful task: "Father, into thy hands...." The Prince of Life lays down His physical life for three dark days.
The Final Sayings of Jesus from the Cross
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
I believe that in the time when in his humanity he felt forsaken by the Father, that as he looked around and we have this parade of people coming by that were mocking him, the chief priest and rulers. I understand why these robbers would mock me. I understand why the crowds who said Hosanna five days ago, they don't understand. I understand why they would forsake me. I understand why these Jewish leaders would forsake me. But my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
That was what broke his heart. He understood why all these others, for various reasons would forsake him. But that was what broke his heart because never had he known a moment's time of any sort of separation in his relationship with the Father. So I think this was the great low point, if you will, in his experience on the cross. (excerpt from My God Why Have You Forsaken Me - Meaning and Importance)
This may appear overly simplistic. The temptation is to take these words and interpret them in some overly spiritualized manner. We might equate “thirsting” with Christ’s call to “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). Another possible connection would be to link this statement with Christ’s invitation that all who are thirsty are invited to drink from the waters of life (Revelation 22:17). These interpretive links are not necessarily wrong, and word-studies can be an enjoyable foray into both biblical meditation and biblical study.
It is out of this place of physical exhaustion that Jesus declares his thirst. The hours spent in the sun, coupled with the physical pain he was feeling, would have created mild, if not severe, dehydration. Jesus speaks of his own thirst out a real human need for sustenance and relief. On the cross, Jesus is physically thirsty. (excerpt from What is the Meaning and Significance of Jesus Saying "I Thirst"?, Rev. Kyle Norman)
"It is finished"
Jesus is saying in “It is finished” that the debt owed by man to his Creator on account of Adam’s sin is finally and forever dealt with. Jesus, with “it is finished,” is saying not only does He take away man’s sin, but now He removes it as far as the east is to the west, for is finished, done, signed, and sealed because of the blood of Jesus.
When Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30) He brought about the completion of all the Old Testament prophecies, symbols, and foreshadowing about Himself. From the beginning of Genesis to the end of Malachi, there are 300 detailed prophecies about the Anointed One Jesus, which are fulfilled by Him. From the “seed” who would crush the serpent's head (Genesis 3:15) to the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53). (excerpt from The Meaning and Significance of "It is Finished", Dave Jenkins)
"Father, into your hands I commit my spirit"
For some believers, whether or not the translation is more active, like “gave up the ghost” or “breathed his last,” in which Jesus appears to be making a decision is very important. Because He was fully God and fully man, Jesus could have taken himself off the cross, remained alive, and exerted His divine authority. He chose not to do so. His divine nature means He intentionally had to choose to no longer hold onto life.
For people who believe this element of the crucifixion is important, the passive implication that Jesus simply passed away on the cross due to sustained injuries in some translation is an insufficient reading of the text. Translations with “expired” or “died” would not be acceptable. Other readers and thinkers do not see this choice as taking away from Jesus’ divine nature, and go with what is easier for them to read or exegete.
It is also significant because of its connection to Psalm 31. It is a direct quotation from that passage of Scripture. In context, it appears: “For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me; you take me out of the net they have hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God” (Psalm 31:3-5).
Jesus invokes this Psalm with the same meaning. Jesus lived a blameless life on earth. Not only did Jesus know He would go to be with the Father, but He knew His life would be vindicated with the resurrection mere days later. Though Jesus’ enemies thought they defeated Him at Calvary, God granted Jesus the ultimate victory with new bodily life. Jesus will have the final victory after His return as well. (excerpt from Beautiful Meaning Behind "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit", Bethany Verrett)
Physical Phenomena at the Death of Jesus
Notes: These events include the following: the rending of the veil in the temple; tremors in the earth that split rocks; the resuscitation (return to mortal life) of some who had (recently?) died and been buried in the regions of Jerusalem. These physical signs drew many onlookers to faith, including a centurion (Roman soldier given leadership over 100 troops) who had been assigned to the detail conducting this crucifixion.
Adapted from the Life of Christ study notes of Dr. Doug Bookman, professor of New Testament Exposition at Shepherds Theological Seminary (used by permission).
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