It was the day of preparation, and the Jewish leaders didn’t want the bodies hanging there the next day, which was the Sabbath (and a very special Sabbath, because it was Passover week). So they asked Pilate to hasten their deaths by ordering that their legs be broken. Then their bodies could be taken down. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, so they didn’t break his legs. (John 19:31-33)
Relate: The greatest strength of a Roman crucifixion was as a deterrent. There were other forms of execution that were far more efficient. As horrendously painful as the cross was, there were other ways to exact pain just as well if not better. What made the cross such a favorite method was how public it was. When Spartacus lost in his rebellion, six thousand rebel slaves were crucified along the Appian Way between Rome and Capua. This was the most highly trafficked part of the busiest road in Italy if not the entire world. They were sending a very public message: “Don’t try this ever again.” Part of what made it such a great message was how grotesque it would look. I have mentioned earlier how crucifixion would kill someone, but I did not point out there what the cross did to its victim’s arms. Because of the stretching and the unnatural placement of the weight, eventually the shoulders would be pulled out of joint. Then later the elbows. A victim who has managed to live well into the second day would have unnatural looking arms that were more than six inches longer than they had been just three days earlier.
The problem was, this deterrent would not have been much of a deterrent of those three men were still on their crosses once Jews started pouring into the city by the thousands. For the religious Jew, seeing those men still hanging on the cross would simply stir up anger and hatred for the Roman occupiers who deliberately flouted Jewish law and custom that demanded no criminal could remain hanging overnight. (Deut 21:23) If Rome allowed those crosses to stay where they were, they would very soon be needing a whole lot more crosses. Pilate wasn’t so much caving to those Jewish leaders demands as he was pragmatically avoiding a mistake he had already made before in not taking the local religious customs seriously.
React: Honestly, this fact about the arms was not something I knew much about. I came across the information when fact checking what I thought I knew about leg breaking. I had heard about the shoulders sometimes being pulled out of joint but the how and the gruesome details behind it are new information to me. I have done my best to keep it fairly pg rated above but what I was reading made me want to cringe, and vomit, and cry all at once. It brought home in one more way exactly what is referred to with phrases like the shame of the cross (Heb 12:2) and “in humiliation His justice was taken away” (Acts 8:33). No one can fully know all that He suffered on the cross but every time I think I have a grip at least on the concept of what it must have been like, it just gets worse.
My only right reaction to this is to cry out, “God I am so sorry.” Every time my mind comes back to this cross, I cannot escape the horror of the truth that it was my sin that held Him there. It was for my rebellion against Him that He suffered the fate of traitors. It brings home once again the truth that no sin is small and His grace, while free, is most certainly not cheap.
I am so thankful for the cross. Even as I am revolted by it, that only causes my gratitude to be deeper and richer. There is no measure to the depth of Your love or the riches of Your grace. Thank You. Thank You. A thousand times thank You for taking on Yourself the punishment that should have been mine.