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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 22 - The Dead Christ

By James Stalker

      It was not usual to remove bodies from the cross immediately after their death. They were allowed to hang, exposed to the weather, till they rotted and fell to pieces; or they might be torn by birds or beasts; and at last a fire was perhaps kindled beneath the cross to rid the place of the remains. Such was the Roman custom; but among the Jews there was more scrupulosity. In their law there stood this provision: "If a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day (for he that is hanged is accursed of God); that thy land be not defiled which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance." [1] Whether or not the Jews always tried to get this provision observed in executions carried out in their midst by their Roman masters, we cannot tell; but it was natural that they should do so in reference to executions carried out in the neighbourhood of the holy city and at Passover time. In the present instance there was the additional reason, that the morrow of the execution of Jesus was a high day--it was the Sabbath of the Passover--a kind of double Sabbath, which would have been desecrated by any unclean thing, like an unburied corpse, exposed to view. The Jews were extremely sensitive about such points. At any time they regarded themselves as unclean if they touched a dead body, and they had to go through a process of purgation before their sense of sanctity was restored. But on the occasion of a Passover Sabbath they would have felt it to be a desecration if any dead thing had even met their eyes or rested uncovered on the soil of their city. Therefore their representatives went to the Roman governor and begged that the three crucified men should be put to death by clubbing and their bodies buried before the Sabbath commenced.

      The suggestion has often been made that, behind this pretended scrupulosity, their real aim was to inflict additional pain and indignity on Jesus. The breaking of the bones of the body, by smashing them with clubs, was a peculiarly horrible form of punishment sometimes inflicted by the Romans.[2] It was nearly as cruel and degrading as crucifixion itself; and it was an independent punishment, not conjoined with crucifixion. But the Jews in this case attempted to get them united, that Jesus, besides being crucified, might, so to speak, die yet another death of the most revolting description. The Evangelist, however, throws no doubt on the motive which they put forward--namely, that the Passover Sabbath might be saved from desecration--and, although their insatiable hatred may have made them suggest clubbing as the mode by which His death should be hastened, we need not question that their scruples were genuine. It is an extraordinary instance of the game of self-deception which the human conscience can play. Here were people fresh from the greatest crime ever committed--their hands still reeking, one might say, with the blood of the Innocent--and their consciences, while utterly untouched with remorse for this crime, are anxious about the observance of the Sabbath and the ceremonial defilement of the soil. It is the most extraordinary illustration which history records of how zeal for what may be called the body of religion may be utterly destitute of any connection with its spirit. It is surely a solemn warning to make sure that every outward religious act is accompanied by the genuine outgoing of the heart to God, and a warning that, if we love not our brother, whom we have seen, neither can we be lovers of God, whom we have not seen.

      Pilate hearkened to the request of the Jews, and orders were given to the soldiers to act accordingly. Then the ghastly work began. They broke the legs of the malefactor on the one side of Jesus, and then those of the other on the opposite side. The penitent thief was not spared; but what a difference his penitence made! To his companion this was nothing but an additional indignity; to him it was the knocking-off of the fetters, that his spirit might the sooner wing its way to Paradise, where Christ had trysted to meet him.

      Then came the turn of Jesus. But, when the soldiers looked at Him, they saw that their work was unnecessary: death had been before them; the drooping head and pallid frame were those of a dead man. Only, to make assurance doubly sure, one of them thrust his spear into the body, making a wound so large that Jesus, when He was risen, could invite the doubting Thomas to thrust his hand into it; and, as the weapon was drawn forth again, there came out after it blood and water.

      St. John, who was on the spot and saw all this taking place, seems to have perceived in the scene an unusual importance; for he adds to his report these words of confirmation, as if he were sealing an official document, "And he that saw it bare record; and his record is true; and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe." Why should he interrupt the flow of his narrative to add these words of assurance?

      Some have thought that he was moved to do so by a heresy which sprang up in the early Church to the effect that Christ was not really human: His body, it was said, was only a phantom body, and therefore His death was only an apparent death. In opposition to such a notion St. John directs attention to the realistic details, which prove so conclusively that this was a real man and that He died a real death. Of course that ancient heresy has long ceased to trouble; there are none now who deny that Jesus was a man. Yet it is curious how the tendency ever and anon reappears to evaporate the facts of His life. At the present hour there are eminent Christian teachers in Europe who are treating the resurrection of the Lord in very much the same way as these early Docetae treated His death--as a kind of figure of speech, not to be understood too literally. Against such the Church must lift up the crude facts of the resurrection as St. John did those of the death of the Saviour.[3] In our generation teachers of every kind are appealing to Christ and putting Him in the centre of theology; but we must ask them, What Christ? Is it the Christ of the Scriptures: the Christ who in the beginning was with God; who was incarnated; who died for the sins of the world; who was raised from the dead and reigns for evermore? We must not delude ourselves with words: only the Christ of the Scriptures could have brought us the salvation of the Scriptures.

      What excited the wonder of St. John is supposed by others to have been the fulfilment of two passages of the Old Testament Scripture which he quotes. It appeared to be a matter of mere chance that the soldiers, contrary to the intention of the Jews, refrained from breaking the bones of Jesus; yet a sacred word, of which they knew nothing, written hundreds of years before, had said, "A bone of Him shall not be broken." It seemed the most casual circumstance that the soldier plunged the spear into the side of Jesus, to make sure that He was dead; yet an ancient oracle, of which he knew nothing, had said, "They shall look on Him whom they pierced." Thus, by the overruling providence of God, the soldiers, going with rude unconcern about their work, were unconsciously fulfilling the Scriptures; and those who both saw what they had done and knew the Scriptures recognised the Divine finger pointing out Jesus as the Sent of God.

      The first of these texts is generally supposed[4] to be taken from the account in Exodus of the institution of the Passover, and originally it refers to the paschal lamb, which was to be eaten whole, the breaking of its bones being forbidden. St. John's idea is that Christ was to be the paschal lamb of the New Dispensation, and that therefore Providence took care that nothing should be done to destroy His resemblance to the type, as would have happened if His bones had been broken. The Passover was the great event of the year in all the generations of Jewish history. It was intended to carry the minds of God's people back to the wonderful scenes of divine grace and power in which their existence as a nation had begun, when God liberated them from their bondage and led them out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The centre of the solemnity was the slaying and eating of the paschal lamb. This reminded them of how in Egypt the blood of this lamb, sprinkled on the lintels and doorposts of their huts, saved them from the visit of the destroying angel, who was passing through the land; and how, at the same time, the flesh of the lamb was eaten by the people, with their loins girt and staves in their hands, and supplied them with strength for their adventurous journey. Thus through all ages it impressed on them two things--that the sins of the past required to be expiated, and that strength had to be obtained from above for the new stage of their history on which at the annual Passover they might be supposed to be entering. In the same way, in the New Dispensation, are our minds ever to revert to the marvellous revelation of the grace and saving power of God in which Christianity originated; and in the very midst is the Lamb slain, who is both the expiation of the sins that are past and the strength requisite for the conflict and the pilgrimage. "If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin."

      The other words of prophecy which appeared to St. John to be fulfilled on this occasion were, "They shall look on Him whom they pierced." They are from a passage in Zechariah, which is so remarkable that it may be quoted in full--"And I will pour out on the house of David and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace and of supplications, and they shall look upon Me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for Him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn." Jehovah speaks figuratively of the opposition shown to Himself and His servants as piercing Him with pain, just as we say of an insult that it cuts to the heart. But in the death of Jesus the figure became a fact: against the sacred person of the Son of God the spear was lifted up, and it was driven home without compunction. Evidently St. John thinks of this rather as the act of the Jewish people than of the Roman soldier. But the prophecy speaks not only of the people piercing God, but of their looking at their own work with shame and tears. At Pentecost this began to be fulfilled; and in every age since there have been members of the Jewish race who have acknowledged their guilt in the transaction. The full acknowledgment, however, still lingers; but the conversion of God's ancient people, when it comes, must begin with this. Indeed, every human being to whom his own true relation to Christ is revealed must make the same acknowledgment. It was the heart not of a few soldiers or of the representatives of a single people, but of the human race, that hardened itself against Him. It was the sin of the world that nailed Him to the tree and shed His blood. Every sinner may therefore feel that he had a hand in it; and it is only when we see our own sin as aiming at the very existence of God in the death of His Son that we comprehend it in all its enormity.

      There have been many who have found the reason for St. John's wonder in the fact that out of the wounded side there flowed blood and water.

      From a corpse, when it is pierced--at least, if it has been some time dead--it is not usual for anything to flow. But whether St. John reflected on this or not we cannot tell. What fascinated him was simply the fact that the piercing of the body of the Saviour made it a fountain out of which sprang this double outflow. When the rock in the wilderness was smitten with the rod of Moses, there issued from it a stream which was life to the perishing multitude; but in the double stream coming from the side of Jesus St. John saw something better even than that; because to him the blood symbolized the atonement, and the water the Spirit of Christ; and in these two all our salvation lies.[5] So we sing in the most precious of all our hymns,--

       Let the water and the blood
       From Thy living side which flowed
       Be of sin the double cure--
       Cleanse me from its guilt and power.

      Although, however, St. John did not perhaps speculate on the reason why this double outflow took place from the wounded side, others have occupied themselves with the question.

      Some[6] have considered the phenomenon altogether abnormal, and endeavoured to explain it from the peculiarity of our Lord's humanity. Though He died. He was not, like other men, to see corruption; His body was to escape in a few hours, transfigured and glorious, from the grasp of death. This transforming process, which issued in His resurrection, began as soon as He was dead; and the spear-thrust, breaking in on it, so to speak, revealed something altogether unique in the constitution of His body.

      Others, keeping within the limits of ascertained fact, have given a totally different yet a peculiarly interesting explanation. They have directed attention to the suddenness of Christ's death. It was usual for crucified persons to linger for days; but He did not survive more than six hours. Yet immediately before dying He again and again cried with a loud voice, as if His bodily force were by no means exhausted. Suddenly, however, with a loud cry His life terminated. To what could this be due? It is said that sometimes, under the pressure of intense mental and physical agony, the heart bursts; there is a shriek, and of course death is instantaneous. We speak of people dying of a broken heart--using the phrase only figuratively--but sometimes it can be used literally: the heart is actually ruptured with grief. Now, it is said that, when this takes place, the blood contained in the heart is poured into a sac by which it is surrounded; and there it separates into two substances--a clotty substance of the colour of blood and a pure, colourless substance like water. And, if the sac, when in this condition, were pierced by a spear or any other instrument, there would flow out a large quantity of both substances, which would by an unscientific spectator be described as blood and water.

      It was by an English medical man that this theory was first propounded fifty years ago,[7] and it has been adopted by other medical men, equally famous for their scientific eminence and Christian character, such as the late Professor Begbie and Sir James Simpson. The latter well brings out the point and the pathos of this view of the Saviour's death in these words:[8] "It has always appeared--to my medical mind at least--that this view of the mode by which death was produced in the human body of Christ intensifies all our thoughts and ideas regarding the immensity of the sacrifice which He made for our sinful race upon the cross. Nothing can be more striking and startling than the passiveness with which, for our sakes, God as man submitted His incarnate body to the horrors and tortures of the crucifixion. But our wonderment at the stupendous sacrifice increases when we reflect that, whilst thus enduring for our sins the most cruel and agonising form of corporeal death, He was ultimately slain, not by the effects of the anguish of His corporeal frame, but by the effects of the mightier anguish of His mind; the fleshly walls of His heart--like the veil, as it were, in the temple of His body--becoming rent and riven, as for us He poured out His soul unto death--the travail of His soul in that awful hour thus standing out as unspeakably more bitter and dreadful than even the travail of His body."

      In this chapter we have been moving somewhat in the region of speculation and conjecture, and we have not rigidly ascertained what is logically tenable and what is not. This is a place of mystery, where dim yet imposing meanings peep out on us in whatever direction we turn. We have called the scene the Dead Christ. But who does not see that the dead Christ is so interesting and wonderful because He is also the living Christ? He lives; He is here; He is with us now. Yet the converse is also true--that the living Christ is to us so wonderful and adorable because He was dead. The fact that He is alive inspires us with strength and hope; but it is by the memory of His death that He is commended to the trust of our burdened consciences and the love of our sympathetic hearts.

      [1] Deut. xxi. 22, 23.

      [2] "Crurifragium, as it was called, consisted in striking the legs of the sufferer with a heavy mallet"--FARRAR, Life of Christ, ii., 423.

      [3] The words that follow in this paragraph are a reminiscence of a singularly eloquent and powerful passage in a speech of Dr. Maclaren, of Manchester, delivered last year in Edinburgh.

      [4] Weiss, however, supposes Psalm xxxiv. 20 to be the reference.

      [5] On the symbolism of this phenomenon see the excursus in Westcott's Gospel of St. John, pp. 284-86.

      [6] E.g., Lange, characteristically.

      [7] Stroud in his treatise On the Physical Cause of the Death of Christ.

      [8] Given in Hanna's The Last Day of our Lord's Passion.

Back to James Stalker index.

See Also:
   Chapter 1 - The Arrest
   Chapter 2 - The Ecclesiastical Trial
   Chapter 3 - The Great Denial
   Chapter 4 - The Civil Trial
   Chapter 5 - Jesus and Herod
   Chapter 6 - Back to Pilate
   Chapter 7 - The Crown of Thorns
   Chapter 8 - The Shipwreck of Pilate
   Chapter 9 - Judas Iscariot
   Chapter 10 - Via Dolorosa
   Chapter 11 - The Daughters of Jerusalem
   Chapter 12 - Calvary
   Chapter 13 - The Groups Round the Cross
   Chapter 14 - The First Word from the Cross
   Chapter 15 - The Second Word from the Cross
   Chapter 16 - The Third Word from the Cross
   Chapter 17 - The Fourth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 18 - The Fifth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 19 - The Sixth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 20 - The Seventh Word from the Cross
   Chapter 21 - The Signs
   Chapter 22 - The Dead Christ
   Chapter 23 - The Burial


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