« PreviousContinue »
on the Sabbath day, [for that Sabbath day was an high day,] besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other who was crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side; and forthwith came there out blood and water. And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true; and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe. For these things were done, that this Scripture should be fulfilled, a bone of him shall not be broken; and again another Scripture saith, they shall look on him whom they pierced,' (John xix. 31-37.)
In these words, St. John, who was an eye witness of the transaction, relates the last insult done to the body of his Lord and master, while it hung on the cross. In this narrative we have an account of a twofold indignity offered to the body of Jesus.
First, One, which was not put in execution. Secondly, Another which, by the Divine permission, was committed on it for good and wise ends.
I. The first indignity, which was designed against the sacred body of our Lord, was the breaking of his legs; But though such an indignity was intended by the soldiers; yet it was averted by a higher power.
First, That this indignity was intended, we may learn from the request of the Jews to Pilate, namely, That the legs of those who were crucified might be broken, and that their bodies might be taken away, (John xix. 31.) Thus the Jews, by whom we are here to understand the rulers, chief priests, scribes, and elders, proposed to treat the body of the Lord Jesus with such indignity. As for the Jewish people, the miracles which attended the death of the Lord. Jesus had so affected them, that they were gone away beating their breasts. Even the very Roman Centurion, who commanded the party of soldiers that watch
ed the cross, had together with his soldiers glorified God, and publicly acknowledged, that the crucified Jesus was not only a righteous man, but the Son of God. The doctors and rulers of the Jewish people still continued obdurate and insensible. The earth had been shaken under their feet, and the rocks were rent; but their stony hearts were still unmoved, unbroken, and without the least apparent sign of sorrow, or awe of the Divine majesty.
This is indeed a most melancholy sight. But let us withdraw our eyes from those hardened miscreants, and turn them inwardly on our own hearts. How often has the death of Jesus Christ been set forth to us? How often has our blessed Saviour, extended on the cross, been so represented to us, as if he had been crucified among us? But are our obdurate hearts softened or broken by the representation? Is our stubborn evil disposition overcome? In the last Consideration, the prodigies which attended the death of Christ, have been illustrated and explained; but what is the effect and impression of them on the reader's mind? Has thy carnal heart shook before God, on hearing that the earth shook at thy Saviour's death? Hast thou been so moved by it, as to beat thy breast; and seriously to resolve on returning from the ways of injustice and covetousness, of uncleanness and intemperance, of pride and anger?
The Jews therefore now applied to Pilate with a double request. They desired of him,
1. That the crucified bodies might be taken down from the cross before sun set; and,
2. That their legs might be broken, in order to hasten their death; since it was acting contrary to the laws, as well as the dictates of humanity, to take those alive from the cross, who had been condemned to die.
That the reader may better understand the nature of this request of the Jews, it is necessary to observe, that those malefactors who were crucified often died a very lingering death; so that it was not an uncom
mon thing for them to remain alive on the cross two or three days, till at last they perished by hunger, or were smothered by smoke, [for which purpose wet materials were burnt under the cross] or were devoured by wild beasts. Here the Jews proposed the breaking of their legs, as the means of hastening the death of the crucified. The breaking of the legs of slaves was not an unusual punishment among the Romans; which was done by laying the legs on an anvil, and breaking them in two with hammers. When
this inhuman punishment was inflicted on the crucified malefactors, the wood of the cross to which their feet were nailed served instead of the anvil; and these violent and painful fractures soon brought on their death. By this cruel treatment, they hastened the death of these unhappy malefactors; but at the same time, their pain was increased to a very high degree by it. Such an excruciating torture the Jewish rulers, who probably had not yet been informed of Christ's death, would willingly have added to those, which had already been inflicted on the blessed Jesus through their means: For they besought Pilate that his bones might be broken on the cross, as well as those of the two malefactors.
But as these hypocrites had before prostituted their religion, by making it a cloak for their wickedness; so they likewise now alleged to Pilate, That the day of the preparation for that Sabbath which was one of their solemn festivals was at hand; and that it would be profaned, if the unclean bodies of the criminals should be suffered to hang on the cross on that high day.
How great was their accursed hypocrisy! They would not profane the Sabbath; and yet they had put to death the Lord of the Sabbath, (Luke vi. 5.) and profaned the sanctuary of Israel, as the Messiah is stiled by the prophet, (Isaiah viii. 14.) They would not have the sun set on the bodies of the executed criminals, because it was contrary to the law, (Deut.
xxi. 23.) and yet they suffer the sun to go down on their detestable wrath and inveterate malice against the blessed Jesus. This notorious instance of vile hypocrisy should awaken in us all an eternal abhorrence of that vice, which affects a great zeal for the externals of religion, but makes no account of the essential part of it.
Secondly, The indignity of mutilating the body of Jesus, which the Jews intended, was prevented by Divine providence. After Pilate had given orders that this request of the Jews should be complied with, two soldiers went up to the crosses, and, with iron bars or hammers, broke the legs of the two malefactors who were crucified with Jesus. Hence the penitent outwardly fared no better, than the impenitent thief. They both felt the cruel blows, and both expired in dreadful pangs and convulsions. To the soul of the penitent malefactor our blessed Lord had promised Paradise; but his body, which had been the instrument of his crimes, was to receive its deserts. He was crucified in the flesh; but his soul was preserved. Hence he probably distinguished himself from his abandoned fellow-sufferer by a composed patience, and rejoiced in his heart when he considered, that however painful this hastening of his death was, it would forward his passage into Paradise.
The soldiers, having now dispatched the two malefactors, approached the cross of Jesus, with an intent of putting an end to his life also, by breaking his legs. May we all draw near to the Lord Jesus with a better intention! Let us approach his cross with a broken and contrite heart, that we may rejoice in his salvation, and be upheld with his free Spirit, (Psalm li. 12.)
But the soldiers, observing that Jesus was already dead, which they might easily perceive by the change of his complexion, the cessation of all motion, and his head bowed down to his sacred bosom; They did not, saith St. John, break His legs.' Now as the intent of this additional punishment was to put an end
to the criminal's life; when they found that Jesus was already dead, there was no occasion for expediting his death by breaking the legs; thus, by omitting it, they acted agreeably to their orders.
But in this transaction, we must above all things have an eye to the hand of God, by which the hands of these soldiers were withheld from committing such an outrage on his Son's body. God would not suf fer our Saviour's legs to be broken, for the following reasons:
First, That it might be manifest, that the sufferings and death of our Redeemer did not proceed from the will and insolence of his enemies; but that he himself had power voluntarily to lay down his life, before any one took it from him, (John x. 18.)
Secondly, That it might appear, that the blessed Jesus, though he was numbered among the transgressors or malefactors, was not of that class. Therefore his heavenly Father caused him to be distinguished from the two malefactors, after his death; since his bones were not broken, and he was honourably buried, neither of which was the case of those who were crucified with him.
Thirdly, That the scripture might be fulfilled, which, as cited by the Evangelist, says, 'A bone of him shall not be broken.'
These words refer,
1. To the type of the Paschal Lamb; concerning which it is said in scripture, (Exod. xii. 46.) Thou shalt not carry forth ought of the flesh abroad, out of the house, neither shall ye break a bone thereof." From this intimation of the Holy Spirit, here quoted by St. John, it is plain, that the chief view of that Divine ordinance was to prefigure this circumstance of our Saviour's passion, as it was a type of his great sacrifice.
2. We are hereby referred to a passage in the Psalms, (Psalm xxxiv. 19, 20.) where it is said of a particular righteous servant of the Lord, 'That many