Luke 23:32-34 (NIV) Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals–one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
Jesus was not crucified alone; two other men, convicted of robbery (Mark 15:27) were crucified with Him, one on His right, the other on His left. Crucifixion was a nasty business, and none of the gospel writers go into any of the horrible details. Their original readers had seen crucifixion and needed none, and the details were too gory and violent for them to capture for future readers.
Crucifixions were designed to be a deterrent as well as a punishment. For that reason, they were not conducted on some far-off hilltop, but right next to a main road near the city, so that all could see what the penalty was for crimes against the Roman empire. The victims were stripped completely naked – no loincloth to protect modesty for either men or women – and their wrists were nailed to the crossbeam, with their arms stretched as far as they could get them to go. The crossbeam was then lifted up and dropped into place over the upright, the jolt often dislocating the victim’s shoulders and elbows. The crosses were short, and the feet of the condemned were only a few inches off the ground. The victim’s knees were slightly bent, and a spike was driven sideways through their ankles into the upright. Then the soldiers would go about their business, leaving the person suspended to die.
Death usually occurred over several hours, although people could sometimes last for a day or two. When death came, it was usually the result of a combination of shock, congestive heart failure, and suffocation. Hanging with all the person’s weight suspended from the nails in their wrists caused the muscles of the chest to cramp and the diaphragm to spasm. Before long, the person found that they could breathe in, but not out. To relieve the pressure, he or she was forced to push themselves up on the nails driven through their ankles. That allowed them to breathe until exhaustion made their knees give way, and they sagged down again.
The periods between needing to push themselves up got shorter and shorter, and the amount of time that they could hold themselves up became shorter as well. All of the pressure on the chest muscles and the restricted breathing caused fluid to start building up in their lungs and around their hearts, causing increased distress. Finally, after their strength was gone, or after their legs were broken so that they could no longer push themselves up, death came quickly.
One of the most remarkable things in the whole crucifixion narrative is Jesus’ prayer from the cross. After going through all of the excruciating pain of having nails driven through His feet and ankles, after having His shoulders and elbows dislocated from the jolt of the crossbeam being dropped roughly into place, after watching the soldiers walk away to cast lots for His clothing (a normal “perk” for those on crucifixion duty), Jesus still prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” What love! What grace!
Father, it is amazing to think that his prayer from Jesus came, not before He had gone through all of this agony and suffering, or after it was all over, but right in the middle of it, while the nails were still causing Him extraordinary anguish. We can forgive others when all is said and done, after the pain has subsided. But to forgive in the midst of being mistreated, tortured, killed, is on a whole different level. But that supernatural love is the level of love and grace that we are called to imitate. Help us, Lord. There is no way we can love like that on our own. Help us to love like Jesus loves. Amen.