In the wake of The Passion of the Christ and the increased awareness of the events surrounding Jesus’ death I have seen several discussions about why Pilate showed surprise that Jesus died so quickly. These discussions are based on the gospel of Mark where we read:
Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate marveled that He was already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for some time. So when he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph.Read It – Mark 15:42-45 (ESV).
To understand Pilate’s surprise it is important to know that crucifixion was a method of execution designed to prolong suffering. A practice the Romans borrowed from other cultures but perfected as a form of producing a long and slow punishment, crucifixion was entirely different from the methods of execution practiced in most parts of the world today which are designed to be quick and painless. Where in our culture we view physical suffering as something to be avoided at all costs, the Romans saw a benefit in it, as they intended executions to serve as warnings to the populace. Hence executions were both public and brutal. Crucifixion prolonged pain and the suffering as long as possible. It was not unusual for people to hang for two or even three days before they died. Indeed the thieves who hung on either side of Jesus had to have their death hastened by the breaking of their legs to ensure they would die before the start of the Sabbath in accordance with Jewish law.
Jesus, though, spent only a few hours on the cross before He died.
Pilate was surprised when after only a short time, Joseph of Arimathea came to him to request Jesus’ body. Pilate was sufficiently surprised that he summoned the centurion who had presided over the crucifixion to hear first-hand that Jesus was, indeed, dead. It was only then that he agreed to give the body to Joseph for burial.
So why, then, did Jesus die so quickly?
There are two keys to understanding this. The first is found initially in Matthew and repeated in John. The gospels of Mark and Luke say that after crying out His final words, Jesus breathed His last. Matthew, though, says “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.” John says Jesus “gave up His spirit.” The significance of this wording is that it shows that Jesus was in control of the timing of His death. He did not die because His body could take no more punishment or because of blood loss. He died because He decided it was time to die.
The second key is found in the gospel of John. John 10:17-18 reads “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.” Ultimately nobody took Jesus’ life from Him. He freely gave it up in order to save those whom He loved. When His work on the cross was complete he, as God, as the one in control, allowed His spirit to leave His body. His work was complete and there was no reason for the physical suffering to continue. So the very moment He had completed the purpose for which He came – His work of atonement on our behalf – He yielded up His spirit.
Though Jesus’ suffering may have lasted for less time than that of the men hanging on either side of Him and far less than many who were crucified before and after Him, it was not the duration of His suffering that achieved our salvation but rather the intensity of His suffering. During the time He was on the cross Jesus perfectly satisfied God’s demand for justice for our sin. The suffering He endured was far beyond human comprehension. At any time He could have caused it to end, but He waited until “it [was] finished” and until He had accomplished the work He had covenanted with His Father to perform on our behalf. Through it all, though, He retained control. He never ceased being the omnipotent God.
Jesus did not lose His life; He gave it.
(I wrote a draft of this article many months ago, but returned to this passage today and decided to clean it up and post it).