The Hands of Execution

Picture of a Bible open to The Crucifixion and topped by a crown of thornsSince Pilate took office, the place called Golgotha has been busy. At least a hundred crucifixions a month—sometimes more—take place on the mound overlooking Jerusalem’s garbage dump. The Roman soldiers assigned to the capitol city are kept busy just taking care of the action going on there at the hill. The hands of execution are busy.

But First, the Cross

The crosses are used over and over again—wood is scarce in this part of Israel. The cross on which they nailed Jesus was not a new one. The man who chopped out its rough outline on some day long past—the man whose axe and chisel gave it a use—he knew what he was doing. The cross is strong and fashioned of the most durable wood. It was made to last.

For scores of executions, the cross had been pulled from its place in the Roman guard working yard and tossed upon the backs of those who crimes deserve nothing less than the cruelest death. The wood of the cross long ago lost its fresh-hewn scent as it bumped through the narrow streets of the city, borne upon the back of the stumbling, sobbing wretch to the hill of death.

The cross has become splintered and battered, but it is still serviceable for death. From execution to execution, it travels up from the prison courtyard, through the shop-lined streets, through the gates and up the winding path to Golgotha. And there, each time, it raises a screaming and broken man above the city. For a day or two—sometimes three—the cross stands on the hill as poisons accumulating in the veins send searing cramps through the body of the man stretched against the wood.

The blood of murderers, traitors, rebels, rapists, thieves, deserters and fools mingle to stain the nail holes of the cross, and each time the spike has to be forced a little deeper to hold fast. Yes, the cross is not new. It was built long ago to endure. And endure it has—long enough for our Lord—to be nailed to it, to die for us, so that we might be forgiven.

The Hands of Execution

In all the crucifixion stories, there’s one man whose story is never told. We are disgusted by the disciples and their desertion and denial, condemn Pilate—and commend Simon of Cyrene and are even moved by the centurion who exclaims Truly, this was the Son of God.2 Yet, what about the common soldiers—the ones elected (or ordered) to the guard detail on Golgotha that fateful day?

There was the captain of the guard, a no-nonsense, by-the-book kind of soldier. There were the rookies and the tough old sergeant who gambled for the clothes of the dying men. Then, there was the executioner—the man who sole task was that of nailing the condemned men to their crosses. The man who swung the hammer. the hands of execution, has a story to tell, too. Listen!

The Executioners Story

It was a crucifixion like any other crucifixion, I guess—although I suppose the festivities and commotion in the city did make it an event that drew more attention than usual. But my part of it was pretty routine. A couple of men stretch him out, and I just hammer him down—two spikes in the crossbar and one for the feet.

It’s not a pretty sight. A guard with a whip usually takes his toll in the courtyard and climbing Skull Hill with a cross on your back takes almost everything you’ve got left in you. Still, even when they’re stretching the condemned men out on that cross, you can see the last hope burning in their eyes. Something—maybe something will change, they think. But, when they feel my first spike, they know.

It’s better to watch where you’re hammering than to look into the eyes of those men you crucify. After a little while, you get hardened to it. We usually toss down some wine before we have to do it—and then get as drunk as we can afterward. In fact, I was sharing a bowl of wine with some of the guards when they came and told me to get my hammer. Just my luck to get stuck with this job during the Passover!

Eli, my father, keeps babbling that the least I could do is quit shaming my people during this special time. But, the Romans wanted me around in case Pilate couldn’t straighten things out. Father and my people may not love me for what I do, but the Gentiles don’t leave me penniless, and I’m no fool.

This particular job did seem a little strange, though. His hand shook when I did it, but He didn’t scream.

A Cruel Way to Die

This is what Jesus suffered for you and me, friends. Crucifixion was an old method of execution used by the Romans as one of their cruelest forms of exacting death. The sons of Israel did not use it. When a Jew was condemned to death for sins against God and His people, all of his fellow men participated in his death—a death by STONING.

Yet, God had prophesied that the Savior of the world would die on the wood of a tree, so it was not by accident that the Romans, with their own instrument of death, were governing the Jews. When Jesus of Nazareth was born, the stage had been set for His death.

We must never forget that Jesus was God in the flesh. But Jesus the Son of God could not and would not make the agony of Jesus the Son of Man any easier or any more bearable. His divinity gave Him power over death—but He could not offer us the opportunity to be spared the consequences of our sins and wrongdoing until His humanity accepted the sheer agony of a brutal death. We may never be able to understand the deity of Jesus, but His humanity was no different than ours.

Jesus—Not an Average Man

What man would willingly give himself to have three nails hammered into his extremities by the hands of execution and then be stretched up into the sun to die? What man would accept this death if he didn’t have to? Surely not the average man.

Jesus of Nazareth knew exactly what His decision meant, and as a man, He was terrified by what He had to do. Just before He surrendered to Judas, He went to Gethsemane. There, separated from the others in the dark, He experienced the cold anguish that comes over a Man who knows that the moment to accept a horrible death or run away has arrived. Later, Mark wrote in his gospel:

He took with Him Peter, James and John, and began to be horror-stricken and desperately depressed. “My heart is nearly breaking,” He told them. “Stay here and keep watch for me.” Then He walked forward a little way and flung Himself on the ground, praying that, if it were possible, He might not have to face the ordeal. “Dear Father, “ He said, “All things are possible to you—please let me not have to drink this cup. Yet it is not what I want, but Thy will be done.3

The Hands of Execution continues

Listen—the soldier is answering some questions from the governor’s liaison.

Three nails to symbolize the CrucifixionNo, sir. He didn’t scream at all, although that big carpenter’s arm of His strained with every blow of my hammer. He didn’t cry out, but you could tell that every inch of His body wanted to. I’ve seen that kind of pain before. Every Jew knows that when his people call death down on him…well, God Himself turns His back.

So I nailed that big Carpenter’s hand to the crossbar and wished I was drunker! I didn’t want to do it, but I have to obey orders. I made me sick! If it wasn’t for a couple of old men in the Sanhedrin and a chicken Roman governor, I might have been wrestling that strong arm across the table that I built in my father’s house, instead of hammering it to that spar out on Skull Hill.

You get used to it though, and by the second cross, the nails pounded in easier as I got my hammer in rhythm. I was busy and didn’t look up for a few minutes. When I finally looked back at the cross, Jesus was praying, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”4

There Was Something About Him

Well, I’ve done it a lot of times before, so I am pretty good at what I do. But the look in His eyes seemed to say a lot more than His lips. He seemed to be saying, “Please find out what I really mean. I cannot hate you.” It was almost as if His body wanted to fight loose, but His heart was so busy, so deeply pitying me and almost…almost…Oh! I just don’t know.

I’ll never forget this one—that look haunts me. Some men, you nail them down and they spit in your face and curse you and God and Caesar. Those men don’t haunt you. Battering them down to that cross is easy. But I am haunted by the race of that man called Jesus that I crucified…

He didn’t have to die! And He had more of a reason to hate me, my people and the men I work for. Why couldn’t He have looked at me with pure hatred in His eyes and make it easy? There must be some reason. If I can find one of His men, perhaps I’ll find out. If I can’t…

Now, I’ve answered enough questions. I want to be left alone. You’ve got me thinking again, and I don’t want to remember anymore. Tomorrow is the Sabbath. He said something about rising again in three days. I wonder…”

God Turned His Back

Once He was nailed to the cross and raised above Golgotha, Jesus faced the most terrifying torture of all. He was being punished by the hands of execution for all the immeasurable evil every other human being had ever committed (or would commit). It may not have made His physical pain any greater. It is difficult to image a greater pain than the cross gave.

But when He accepted the evil and sin of all men, God the Father turned His back on Him. The sheer isolation of Jesus hanging on the cross without help and without God must have been infinitely more terrible than anyone can understand.

How could He take the punishment for every human being who ever lived or ever will live? No one will ever really know—but He did. He didn’t want to—we know that He had already asked His Father if He had to drink of the cup—Please, Father, let this cup pass from me—nevertheless, not My will but Thine be done.5

But it was written that the Son of God was to die for all men. The prophets had foretold it—and who was He to go against His Father’s will? He knew He couldn’t. How great was His faith—how much greater than ours! We have trouble obeying our earthly fathers if they ask us to clean out the garage or do the dishes or take out the trash! Yet, Jesus allowed Himself to be hung on a cross and to go through the physical torture that I have described because His Father willed it—because His Father said, “You must die for all men. Only through You can mankind know Me.” This was reason enough for Jesus to sustain the hands of execution.

Jesus Died for Them

I have not painted this picture to be brutal, but to help all of us realize the pain and torment that Jesus went through for you and me and all mankind. We know that on the cross, He must have faced His greatest temptation—the temptation to hate. As a man, He had more human reason for hating than any other man has ever had. He was dying the most brutal death ever devised by man for sins He never personally committed since the day He was born—or any day since.

He was cut off from God the Father. The men whose petty vanity had nailed Him to the cross stood at the foot of the cross and dared Him to defy them—“Come down from the cross, Miracle Man. If you are the Son of God, show us your power. You who can command twelve legions of angels, call on them now. If you are the Son of God, prove it. Come down from the cross…”

No temptation could have been greater than to step down from the cross and cram their guilt down their throats. He might even have been able to rationalize it by saying that He came down from the cross just to prove to them that He WAS God!

But Jesus accepted the cross to die for even their sins. To give in to them meant they would have to die condemned. Jesus of Nazareth would not give in to the chance to hate. He had to go all the way to death.

And He Died for US

We sit in our pews during Lent and on other days for worship, and we think of words of ritual and pageantry. As we remember the pastel pictures of our Sunday School papers and think of Golgotha as a hill of saddened serenity rather than a crag of violence, we find it hard to believe that we, too, would have screamed, “Crucify Him!” That we could be the hands of execution.

Jesus of Nazareth died in terrible pain. He died—having finished what He was born to do. He died for those who screamed for His crucifixion–for us–to give hope to the man who muscles swung the hammer that nailed Him to the cross, the hands of execution.

That’s why He placed His hand beneath the hammer of that man in the first place.

Scriptures Used in Today’s Message

  1. John 19:16-25
  2. Matthew 27:54b
  3. Mark 14:32-36
  4. Luke 23:34
  5. Matthew 26:42

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