“Then they crucified him and divided his clothes, casting lots for them to decide what each would get.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
There are certain moments when you know things have changed. If you happen to be a fan of the Oakland Athletics, in their 2014 Wild Card game against the Kansas City Royals, that moment came in the bottom of the 8th inning with their ace, John Lester, pitching against Royals shortstop, Alcides Escobar. Lester had been dominant all season and he had led his team to a 7-3 lead against a Royals team that had surged late in the season, but had over the course of a generation perfected the art of crushing the hopes of their fans. Then, on a 1-1 pitch, Escobar sent a drive right up the center. Both the shortstop and the second baseman ran for it, but as they crossed paths just beyond the bag, the ball went rolling on to the centerfielder, and Escobar was safe at first. That moment marked the turn in the game. It was the moment the A’s lost it. All the momentum then shifted in the Royals’ favor and they went on to complete a comeback for the ages. (And, as a Royals fan, it marked the two greatest seasons they’ve had in my lifetime.) This highlight video is worth watching, and if you’re really interested, you can actually watch the game in its entirety here. What has me thinking about that day this morning (beyond wishful thinking as the Royals are wrapping up another barely mediocre season) is that for Jesus’ followers, we have reached the moment in the text when they knew things had changed. It was the moment they knew they had lost. Let’s talk about it.
Jesus was not the first and far from the only charismatic man to claim he was the Messiah in His day. Rome’s authoritarian dominance over the region had inspired many Messianic revolts over the years. Two of these, Theudas and Judas the Galilean, are mentioned in the book of Acts. The culture was ripe for such revolts. The people’s hope for the Messiah had been steadily growing over the years. They were looking for God to fulfill His apocalyptic promises in their favor the way folks today often do the same with Jesus’ return. Those hopes combined with Rome’s political and cultural oppression made the whole place a tinderbox. All it took was a single spark to light a great blaze. The trouble was, Rome had proven itself exceedingly efficient at putting out fires. Revolt after revolt was met with the overwhelming power of the Roman Legions and put down ruthlessly. In fact, in a bit of an ironic twist, Rome became the rubric people used to evaluate the claims of a Messiah claimant. When someone proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, the way you knew whether or not he was telling the truth was if he ended up on a Roman cross. False messiahs were crucified, the real one would not be.
Jesus’ followers had become convinced He was the Messiah. Peter proclaimed it with boldness. Jesus didn’t deny it when the chief priests leveled the charge at Him in His trial before the Sanhedrin. As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, Judas may have betrayed Him to the chief priests in order to force His hand and reveal Himself as the Messiah everyone was expecting Him to be. He was finally going to be the one who wasn’t false.
Then the clang of a Roman hammer on an iron spike shattered everyone’s illusion.
This was the moment Jesus lost. Everything He ever said was proven to be false. He wasn’t really the Messiah at all, but only a pretender, just like all the rest.
Crucifixion was a brutal was to be killed. Various forms of it had existed for many years before this era. Most of these, though, involved impaling victims on a pole and displaying the bodies for all to see. Rome, though, had taken this torturous method of execution and turned it into almost an artform. When they got everything just right, victims would remain alive on their crosses for more than a week, suffering in delirious agony the whole time.
The whole process started with a person’s hands being nailed to a wooden crossbeam. Sometimes this would be done through the wrist; sometimes through the hands. This crossbeam was then affixed to a pole. Most crosses wound up in the shape of a capital T, others the more modernly traditional lowercase t. The victims ankles were crossed and a spike was driven either through the ankles or the feet. Occasionally the executioners would nail a small step just under the victim’s feet to the pole. Although such a thing might seem like a mercy, it was anything but that. Why will become clear in a moment.
Once the victim’s hands and feet were nailed securely to the cross, it was hoisted up in the air. Crucifixion was intended to be a public display. This served as a warning to the crowd gathered to watch as well as a means of deepening the agony of it all. Most people would have been crucified naked. The fact that the soldiers were casting lots for Jesus’ clothes implied they weren’t on Him any longer. The Jewish culture in particular was very modest. The humiliation of hanging naked before the whole world would have been awful.
If the thought of being nailed to a cross sounds terrible to you (and it should), the worst was yet to come. Being nailed down was never the cause of death. The pain of the spikes would have increased the torment as it would have prevented the victim from passing out. Hanging there like they were, though, the condemned would have struggled to breath. Over time, this would have gotten worse. Over the course of hours, but more often days, the victims’ lungs gradually filled up with fluid such that asphyxiation was often the ultimate cause of death.
This is actually where the step on the cross made things worse. That step gave the victims a place to push up on in order to draw a full breath. That may have been a welcome relief in the moment, but a full breath just meant the body could endure the pain and suffering even longer. Also, pushing up would have further inflamed the pain of the spikes in the ankles. The rough wood of the pole would have torn up the back as well. This would have been especially true when the victims had been beaten before being nailed down as Jesus was. Eventually, as if all of this weren’t enough, carrion eating birds would have moved in. So would have the flies. All the while, the victim was completely helpless except to suffer until his body finally gave up. That Jesus’ body only lasted for three hours was remarkably short and a mercy. It just brought the final moment of His loss to its inglorious conclusion.
Or at least, that’s what it seemed like. This whole ordeal looked like one long march of defeat for Jesus and His movement. Everyone knew it. The chief priests delighted in their victory. The Roman soldiers and politicians put another tally mark in their list of successfully quelled rebellions. And Jesus’ followers, now utterly demoralized, were quietly licking their wounds, and trying to figure out how to escape the city without arousing suspicion that might garner them the same end as their Lord. It was over.
The truth, though, was that God wasn’t done. The truth is that God wins. He always wins. He can’t lose. Anytime it looks like He’s behind, just wait, the comeback is just around the corner. You have to stay with Him all the way to the bottom of the 12th.
I’ll confess, I went to bed that night. I watched until I couldn’t take it anymore, and then I turned the TV off and went to bed. The Royals were simply going to dash my hopes again. The Royals had had a great run, but the season was finally over. I could switch gears to football, and get ready for college basketball season to start in November. Then, something woke me up a little after midnight, and I checked my phone to see what the final damage report was. Except, there wasn’t a final score. The game wasn’t over. I had missed the moment when things changed. So did the disciples. What they saw as only defeat, was simply the beginning of the comeback; the greatest comeback of all time. It’s a comeback whose victory we can still today not only celebrate, but in which we can participate. I hope that you will. You’ll forever be glad that you did.