The entire earthly life of the Lord Jesus was one of suffering. However, this article focuses on 3 types of suffering he endured just before and on the cross as he secured our redemption by shedding his blood. And the 3 types of suffering* were: Physical, Spiritual, and Emotional.
1. Physical Suffering
There is a tendency among bible believing Christians to not talk much about Jesus’s physical suffering. I can think of 2 reasons as why this may be the case.
Reason # 1. The Bible itself does not give many details about the method of crucifixion other than simply saying, “They crucified him” [Mk 15:24]. And since God himself does not give much detail in the Bible about this form of execution, we tend to gloss over it.
Reason # 2. While, for sure, Jesus’s physical suffering was a terrible one, it was still not unique since even other human beings went through the same experience at that time. So, we gloss over the details about the crucifixion.
But I think it will do us good to take a few minutes to understand the details about the cruel nature of crucifixion since that was how Jesus was put to death.
Death by crucifixion was practiced from about 600 years before Jesus’s time by the Persians. The Greeks later practiced it as well. But the Romans took it to an entirely new level. They reserved crucifixion as the form of punishment for the most hardened criminals. It was to send this message to the people: This is what will happen if you go against Rome! That’s why Rome would typically crucify people at a spot where many would travel. As the travelers saw the victims suffer—sometimes for days—they would get the explicit warning: Don’t you dare resist Rome!
Process of Crucifixion.
The primary materials needed were 2 individual pieces of wood and 3 nails. The 2 wood pieces would be put together to form more like a T than a cross [+ sign as pictures often indicate]. The crossbeam was called Patibulum. And the vertical beam or post was called Stipes.
The process first involved the victim being flogged with short strips whips with pieces of metal or bones embedded in it and attached to a solid wooden handle. The whipping itself could kill a man or leave him permanently crippled since it would rip the flesh off the back and the sides. The victim would then be forced to carry the crossbeam through town toward the place of crucifixion. That’s what carrying one’s cross meant—be prepared to die. It was a one-way trip—no turning back. In the case of Christ, the flogging was so bad it left him unable to carry his cross for the whole route [Mk 15:21].
And when the victim came to the place of crucifixion, the cross beam would then be attached to the top of the vertical beam or post. One of the beams would have a hole, and the other had a square peg so they could easily be attached and detached for subsequent use. The assembled cross would then be laid flat on the ground. The victim would then be stripped of all clothing and thus be exposed to more shame.
At times, the victim would be given some intoxicating drink to numb the effects of the pain. It was not done because of kindness toward the victim. It was so that the victim wouldn’t resist too much and make the job harder for the soldiers. The victim would then be placed on the cross with his bare bleeding back scraping the wood of the cross. That itself would be excruciating.
The victim would then be tied with ropes or nailed, depending on how long the soldiers would want the suffering to last. Obviously, in Jesus’s case, he was nailed [John 20:24-27]. The victim’s hands would be stretched and nailed on the cross beam—one nail on each hand. The nails would be driven in the wrists and not in the palms (as pictures often wrongly portray). That way, the nails won’t tear away from the flesh and cause the victim to drop the hands. The 3rd nail would then be driven through both feet [at the junction between the feet and legs]. That way, the feet would be fastened to the vertical beam. The specific crime of the condemned man would be written on a board and attached to the cross. That was to let all who would pass by know what crime got the person there.
The soldiers would then lift the cross and drop it into a deep hole to keep it vertical. Just the jarring that would occur with the cross being dropped would bring excruciating pain—as though the head would explode. And then would begin the hours and even days of unimaginable and horrendous pain! The forearms would go numb, and the shoulders would feel like they were being pulled from their sockets. The chest cavity would be pulled upward and outward, making it difficult to exhale in order to draw a fresh breath.
And to draw a breath, the victim would instinctively push himself up with his legs. While this would help the victim get another breath, it would also be extremely painful. How so? Because this effort required putting the body’s weight on the nails holding the feet, bending the elbows, and pulling upward on the nails driven through the wrists. It would also cause tremendous pain in the nerves—pain like as though one was going through a fire.
And with each breath, the victim’s back that was torn open due to the flogging would also experience pain since it would scrape against the wooden cross. And when the legs would weaken, cramp and tremble, the victim would then arch his back for relief. This constant shifting of position was the only way to try and cope with the pain in the arms, chest, back, and legs. And in the meantime, the will to survive would keep the victim crying out in pain. And that would continue until he would become too exhausted, too dehydrated, and too physically weak to pull in another breath. Death—which would eventually occur hours later or even days later—usually came by suffocation, not necessarily through blood loss.
So, that’s a glimpse of the physical suffering our Lord went through for your and my sins. From the physical aspect of his suffering, let’s look at the second aspect of Jesus’s suffering.
2. Spiritual Suffering
As awful as the physical suffering was (and genuinely dreadful), this spiritual suffering was much harder for our Lord. Why? Because on the cross, Jesus experienced the “psychological pain of bearing the guilt for [all] our sin” [Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 573].
There are times even we experience the feeling of tremendous guilt when we realize we have sinned. The weight of the guilt is heavy in our hearts. And we are sinners, to begin with, and if we feel such pain, imagine how it must have been for our Lord Jesus, who never sinned! He was perfectly holy while he lived on this earth. No sinful words. No sinful actions. Not even one wicked thought! He hated sin, and even the very thought of sin caused him to rebel against it instinctively. Yet, all he hated, all that was not him, was poured fully on him. In other words, all our sins were fully poured out on him. The Bible makes this abundantly clear.
Isaiah 53:6 “LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Isaiah 53:12 “he bore the sin of many.”
John 1:29 “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
2 Corinthians 5:21 “God made him [i.e., Jesus] who had no sin to be sin [or better translated “a sin offering”] for us.”
Hebrews 9:28 “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many.”
1 Peter 2:24 “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.”
These verses don’t mean that Christ became a sinner on the cross. He was never guilty of committing any sin [John 8:46; 1 Pet 2:22]. He was being treated as though he committed those sins, thus bearing the punishment. And as a result, all who put their faith in him could be forgiven of their sins. How so? Because Jesus already suffered in their place and paid the price for their freedom with his blood.
Jesus himself said that he, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” [Matt 20:28]. Again, ransom refers to paying the price—his blood for our sins. That’s redemption terminology. And by shedding his blood on the cross, Jesus not only bore the guilt for our sin, but as our substitute, he also absorbed all of God’s wrath against sin.
1 John 2:2 “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Romans 3:25 “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.”
And by absorbing God’s wrath for sins on the cross, Jesus made the provision that those who trust in him, i.e., those who put their faith in him, will never experience God’s wrath for their sins. So, that’s a glimpse of the spiritual suffering Jesus went through on the cross for your and my sins.
Having seen the physical and the spiritual aspect of Jesus’s suffering, let’s briefly look at the 3rd and final aspect of his suffering on the cross—the emotional suffering.
3. Emotional Suffering
By emotional suffering, I am referring to the sense of abandonment Jesus experienced on the cross. Everyone abandoned him. Imagine if you’re going through a tough time in life. Would you rather be alone, abandoned by your spouse, children, and even friends? Or would you rather have someone alongside? The answer is obvious. Even one person close is such a blessing during times of great trial. Yet, Jesus was left all alone during the time of the greatest suffering anyone could ever undergo!
First of all, he was abandoned by his close friends—the 11. He already must have felt the pain of Judas’s betrayal. And the 11 who promised to be with him abandoned him when he was arrested. And second, he faced the greatest emotional pain anyone could face—when God the Father abandoned him. On the cross, as Jesus bore our sins, the perfect fellowship [not the relationship] between the Father and the Son—a fellowship that existed all eternity before this time was temporarily broken—especially between noon and 3 pm. It was the time when God was pouring his wrath on his Son, who bore it all alone.
In fact, that emotional suffering was so great which caused Jesus to cry out that very familiar cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matt 27:46]. When we read these words, we can get a little glimpse of how deep the pain and emotional anguish Jesus suffered for your and my sins.
So, we see the physical, spiritual, and emotional suffering that Jesus went through on the cross to redeem us.
The next time, when we are faced with a temptation to sin, let’s pause and reflect on the various types of suffering our Lord went through on the cross as he shed his blood to redeem us. And may that reflection compel us to say, ‘No’ to the temptation of sin.
Can we look at the cross, knowing our Savior hung between heaven and earth crying out in profound agony and at the same time cherish the sins, including those very sins we have loved for so long?
May our hearts be moved with a holy resolve from this day forward to grow in our hatred for sins—a hatred that will compel us to put them away knowing what it did to our Savior. And may our hearts also be stirred up to love and treasure our precious Lord Jesus even more.
CLICK here for a sermon associated with this subject of redemption.
* Much of my understanding on this subject of Jesus’s suffering came from Wayne Grudem’s “Systematic Theology” [chapter titled “The Atonement”]. May God bless him for his diligent efforts.