From a pile of dusty bones in an abandoned crypt, his tragic story emerges: name, Yehohanan ben Hagkol (Aramaic for John, son of Hagkol); nationality, Jew; age, somewhere between 24 and 28 years; height, five feet, six inches; economic status, member of a wealthy family; occupation, no apparent form of hard labor; health, no indication of any serious illness; residence, Jerusalem; date of death, sometime during the A.D. 30s or 40s.
And how did this young man die? Violently. The shin of his left leg had been broken, probably by the blow of a club. After he expired, his feet had to be amputated by a hatchet blow in order to remove his body. Why? Yehohanan ben Hagkol was the victim of Roman crucifixion. We know, because the five- to six-inch nail that spiked his heels to the cross has been found.
But who was he? Nobody knows. His dusty pile of bones was discovered by the Israeli Ministry of Housing in June 1968 at a Jewish burial ground in the northern sector of Jerusalem. What makes this archaeological find so significant is that it marks the first time the remains of a crucified man, dating from the Roman era, have been found.
But the world didn’t need the tale of Yehohanan to remember the tragedy of crucifixion. The story of another young Man on another Roman cross outside that same ancient city has told the tale all too well. We know what killed Yehohanan ben Hagkol. But what killed Jesus of Nazareth? Three Roman nails? One centurion’s lance? Forty flagellations on the back by a legionnaire?
What killed Jesus?
We’ve been taught a simple answer to that question: our sins! Our pride and self-centeredness, our evil tempers and vile tongues, our lustful hearts and addicted minds. That’s what killed Jesus!
But is that really the answer? The problem is that we’re 12 hours too late. The road to Golgotha always leads first through Gethsemane. In fact, Golgotha without Gethsemane is an answer without a question. Which is why, if we would know the truth at last, it’s imperative that we hasten to the Garden before we hurry to the cross.
Eleven young men moved silently beneath the moon that stared down upon the slumbering city. Their voices were hushed as they climbed up the winding road that led to a garden. A few more muffled words, and eight of the young men took up places near the gate. Four others slipped into the darker shadows of the Garden.
Shafts of moonlight fall upon the faces of the four, and in that dim light we gaze upon a Face that seems strangely troubled. Something is happening to Jesus. He said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” He was saying, in effect, “Peter, James, John, something’s happening to Me. I feel like death is stealing over Me. Stay right here. Don’t leave Me now. Pray for Me.” And “going a little farther, he fell to the ground” (Mark 14:35).
Watch as the God of the universe—now made Man—stumbles deeper into the Garden, and with a cry falls prostrate on the cold earth. Clutching the ground as if some dark power is dragging Him into hell, Jesus’ anguished voice rends the still night air: “Abba, Father,” take it away—if it is Your will (verse 36).
Then there’s silence, as the Son of God clings to the wet earth. Slowly, Jesus staggers to His feet. He will return to His closest companions, for surely, since they’ve witnessed His deep anguish, they’ll have words of comfort for Him. But alas! He’s greeted only by the heavy snoring of the three. “ ‘Simon,’ he [says] to Peter, ‘are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour?’ ” (verse 37).
Tragic, isn’t it?
Can we even comprehend what this God-man was going through? What do the Scriptures declare? “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Sin pays a wage—death. What kind of death? Since its antithesis is eternal life, it follows that sin’s wage is eternal death.
Years ago, when my two children were young, sometimes I’d return home late at night and find that my wife, weary after a day of mothering them, had collapsed asleep in bed. There in the sliver of light from the half-ajar closet door, I’d gaze onto her slumbering face. And I’d wonder how I could ever survive being separated from her. It was bad enough when I had to be away for a weekend or a week. But for eternity? To be cut off from her love forever? My heart still shudders at the thought! For there’s nothing in this life and no one in this world that could persuade me to give up the life and the love we share!
And yet there’s Jesus, clawing the ground in Gethsemane, struggling with the thought of eternal separation from His Father. Is it any wonder that He cried out, “Take this cup from Me if it is Your will”?
And who was with Him?
Do you think He suffered alone? Never! But His companion probably wasn’t who you think. We can be certain that Lucifer was hidden in the black shadows of Gethsemane. It was all or nothing for him. If Christ walked up to Calvary and died as the eternal consequence of human sin, then it would sound the death knell for Satan and his legions. And so with the blasting fury of hell, while the disciples slept, the one who stalked Jesus in the wilderness stormed Him in the Garden. “Let them die!” he must have shrieked into Jesus’ heart. “Walk away and save Yourself, Jesus. Look at Your closest friends on earth, sleeping while You suffer! They don’t care. Go home to Abba, where You belong.”
Was it a temptation for Jesus? The bloody ground over which He cried in the darkness is answer enough. But with a final agonized cry Jesus collapsed to the ground, His decision made. He would save the human race at any cost to Himself. And having made that choice, He fell dying to the ground.
Twelve hours later, at noon on Friday, Jesus hung from a Roman cross. His back rubbed up and down the splintery wood—a back that had already been ripped into a messy, bloody mass by the tiny pieces of bone and metal balls tied into a Roman whip. The nerves, the tendons, and the blood vessels of His wrists and feet had been shattered by the three six-inch iron nails that the executioner had hammered through them into the wood.
In order to raise Himself up so He could gasp for air He had to jam His weight against the wrist wounds and rub His shredded back against the cross in a desperate effort to expand His diaphragm and chest just long enough to suck in some more air. Pushing up on His feet placed all the weight of His body on the tarsals, producing a searing pain. It’s no wonder the Latins coined the word excruciatus, which means “out of the cross,” from which we get our English word excruciating.
Back to Gethsemane
We’ve come to envision the cross as the ultimate in physical suffering. But we reach that conclusion only when we’ve hurried to Golgotha without first lingering in Gethsemane. For there’ve been martyrs who suffered more intensely than Christ did on Calvary. We’ve missed the critical point if the cross becomes merely a symbol of pain. For the difference between the martyrs and Jesus is that the former died with the hope of resurrection from death, but Jesus suffered and died fearing that His death would mean neither resurrection to life nor reunion with His Father. Eternal death, eternal separation—it was with that horror that Jesus walked out of Gethsemane and climbed up to Golgotha.
According to the Gospel accounts, a black, funereal pall cloaked Golgotha and Jesus between noon and three o’clock that fateful Friday afternoon (Mark 15:33). And in the blackness a voice screamed out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (verse 34). Sin’s crushing, separation from God was coming true in the dying of Jesus.
The God-forsaken God. But why?
As we stand between Gethsemane and Golgotha, our hearts are confronted with two undeniable and ultimate realities: how utterly terrible is our sin; but how utterly wonderful is His love. He was willing to be separated from God forever, so that we might be saved by God forever. Forsaken so that we might be found, rejected so that we might be redeemed. He died the second death so that we would have a second chance. In all our feeble human language there is no word for such a sacrifice, save the word love.