Though He died the death of a common criminal by being crucified on a cross, there was nothing common about Jesus’ death. The gospels zero in on its uniqueness:
Matthew writes, “When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, He gave up His spirit,” (27:50).
Luke records, “Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit,” (Luke 23:46).
Mark tells us of the centurion’s reaction to watching Jesus die, “when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how He died, he said, ‘Surely, this man was the Son of God!’” (Mark 15:39).
John’s account is even more pointed, “Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, He bowed His head and gave up His spirit,” (John 19:30).
These passages point out two important and overlooked aspects in regard to the death of Jesus. First of all, they indicate that Jesus was both conscious and in command at the time of His death. He wasn’t unconscious or slowly drifting away. He called out in a loud voice, He bowed His head, He gave up His spirit. There are the actions of someone who was in control.
Secondly, think about the phrase “gave up His spirit.” It is worth careful consideration because it is a point of emphasis in all four accounts. Not only was Jesus’ life not taken from Him, but He also chose the moment in which it would be given. The centurion, who had likely witnessed many deaths by crucifixion, saw something in the death of Jesus that he hadn’t seen before and concluded that Jesus was no mere human.
All of this leads us to something Jesus said in John 10:17-18:
The reason My Father loves Me is that I lay down My life — only to take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from the Father.
Jesus claimed to have control over His life, His death, and His resurrection. What an incredible claim. A cursory look at John’s gospel reveals numerous occasions when the opponents of Jesus sought to take His life (5:18, 7:1,19,25, 8:37,40, 11:47-53). Their attempts were all unsuccessful. Why? The answer is simple: Jesus was unwilling to lay His life down on any of these occasions and since He alone had the power to do so, His death wasn’t going to happen without His permission.
At Golgotha, in accordance with His Father’s will, Christ chose to give His life and make atonement for our sins (John 19:30). Yet even at the cross, He was in total control down to the moment of His death. This was what impressed the centurion. Anyone suffering the torturous death of crucifixion would wish for such control, but only Jesus possessed it. This is why the centurion says, “Surely, this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
Christ’s ability to choose the moment of His departure from this world is a fulfillment of His claim and a clear sign of His deity. We need to treat it as such. The portrait of a barely conscious Jesus bleeding out on the cross undermines this claim and is not in sync with the gospel writers’ presentation. Similarly, it is misguided to look for the suffering of Jesus primarily in the physical aspects of the crucifixion. Not only do the writers of the gospels not emphasize this, but a careful sifting of their testimony will cultivate a recognition and appreciation that the ultimate suffering of the cross was not physical, but the loneliness, isolation and forsakenness Jesus experienced there as the land was shrouded in darkness and He tasted death for us (Hebrews 2:9).
History is full of people who gave their physical lives for others but knows only One perfect man who bore the sins of mankind through His death. That is what makes the cross the nexus of history. May we always treat it that way.
You can find more of Bruce’s writings at his website: a-taste-of-grace-with-bruce-green.com.