All the Way to Calvary: The First Few Hours on the Cross

The soldiers had driven the nails. The hardest part of their work was done. With a remarkable brevity of words, as if in unison, the four Evangelists simply state, “They crucified him” (Mat 27:35; Mar 15:24; Luk 23:33; Joh 19:18). Only two Greek words (stauroo autos) are used in the Gospels to record the crucifixion of God’s Son, which means we must not yield to the temptation to linger too long here.

Mark tells us that it was “the third hour” when they crucified Him (15:25), and three hours later (v33), the unforgettable darkness would set in. But so much transpired in those first few hours on the cross.

Stripped Down

We must not overlook an important detail emphasized in all four Gospels. Our blessed Savior endured the humiliation of being stripped down in the presence of many spectators just before His hands and feet were nailed in place.

In addition to a loin cloth, a typical set of garments consisted of five items: sandals, a belt, a headpiece, an outer garment and a seamless undergarment (or tunic). Each of the four soldiers received one item, and rather than tearing the tunic into four pieces, they gambled for it (see Joh 19:23-24). Perhaps this was considered part of their pay. John is careful to record the fact that even this humiliating behavior fulfilled Scripture (see Psa 22:18).

Wondrous thy humiliation
To accomplish our salvation:
Thousand, thousand praises be,
Precious Savior, unto Thee.[1]

Written Down

We move our eyes from the foot of His cross where the soldiers were gambling to the top of His cross where we observe a fascinating placard. Written down and posted for passersby to read were these words: “This Is Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.”[2] The poster was probably somewhat large, for the same statement was written in three languages: Hebrew (or Aramaic), Greek and Latin. Aramaic was the language commonly used in Judea; Greek was the international language understood by both Jews and Gentiles; Latin was the Roman official language. Therefore, anyone passing by could read the sign. These languages made the title, in effect, a universal pronouncement about the kingship of Jesus of Nazareth.

The chief priests of the Jews were not happy. The title, authored by Pilate, seemed to be a poke in their eye. Although he finally consented to their wish in crucifying Jesus, he would have the last word. But the chief priests preferred an edited version, which would read, “This man said, ‘I am king of the Jews.’” Pilate turned them away firmly, declaring, “What I have written I have written” (Joh 19:22).[3] Their edit request was not only rejected; it was erroneous. Jesus never said, “I am king of the Jews.” Others said it about Him (e.g., Joh 1:49), but He never said it Himself.

Sitting Down

Let’s go back to the soldiers for a moment. The gambling game for garments ended. The longest and perhaps most boring part of their job ensued. They would have many hours to wait until death finally overtook any of the three they had crucified. But Matthew records an interesting observation: “And sitting down they watched him there” (27:36). Of the three victims, it was Jesus in particular that held their interest. Why such fascination with Jesus of Nazareth? The NET is helpful here: “Then they sat down and kept guard over him there.” No one knew how many followers Jesus had. Perhaps a group of zealous supporters would rush in to effect a rescue operation. The soldiers would need to watch carefully to ensure that didn’t happen.

Jesus was also known as a miracle worker. Might He attempt one now to seek to deliver Himself? Thus the soldiers “kept guard over him there.” But there would be no miraculous escape of Jesus. Jesus was there to provide a miraculous escape for them (and for us). The great wonder was that He stayed on the cross, suffering for our sins that we might be rescued from the wrath of God.

The soldiers’ watch would go uninterrupted for a few hours. But soon the darkness would fall and would change not only the atmosphere at the cross but the attitude of the men who nailed Him there.

“Come Down!”

We might wonder if one of the most difficult things our Savior had to endure while hanging on the tree were the crowd’s “ifs”: “If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself” (Luk 23:37); “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us” (v39); “If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mat 27:40). They mocked His titles – King, Christ, Son of God. They further mocked Him as a Prophet – “Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself” (v40). And it was not a small group involved in this provocation. The chief priests, the scribes, the thieves next to Him, the soldiers and the crowd in general all participated. But their taunts all included the same request – “Come down!” They alleged that if He were to come down, they would believe His claims. In fact, “the only thing that would convince them, they inferred, would be a supernatural loosening from the nails that impaled him. If he had come floating down from the cross like a levitating spook – saving himself – they would have believed, they said.”[4]

What they didn’t understand was that it was far easier for Christ to come down from the cross than to remain upon it. To stay there meant enduring suffering no one else had ever experienced nor could experience. But divine love held Him there until His work to save was finished. One of their insults (ironically true) was “He saved others.” And Jesus refused to come down so that He could save them too (and us).

Often I stop to think just where I’d be
Had Jesus come down from that cruel tree;
There’d be no hope for man; no peace could be found.
Praise God, I’m glad that he didn’t come down.[5]

[1] Ernst C. Homburg (1605–1681), translated by Hannah K. Burlingham (1842–1901).

[2] Putting the Gospel records together, this may have been the complete title.

[3] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.

[4] R. Kent Hughes, Luke: Volume 2 in Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), 383. The italics in the quotation are mine.

[5] Al Harkins (1936–2001)