Jesus at the Place of the Skull

In our meditations over the next few days, we will look closely at Christ's crucifixion. Jesus carried His cross by the longest route to a site near the city gate. The early church fathers felt that Isaac's carrying the wood on which he would be sacrificed by his father, Abraham (Genesis 22:6), was symbolic of Jesus' carrying His cross. Each person to be crucified would have a squad of four soldiers, a quaternion, one on either side of Him. The leading Roman soldier would parade a sign with the reason for crucifixion. This indictment would create fear in the people who read it to think twice before committing a similar crime.

There were four reasons the Romans used crucifixion as a form of punishment: 1) the death was agonizing, 2) the crucifixion process was slow, 3) the common public could observe a Roman crucifixion and fear, and 4) it was humiliating and served as a deterrent to crime and rebellion.

Pilate instructed the sign written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek with JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. The Jewish elders were incensed by this and tried to get the sign changed to say that Jesus had said that He was the King of the Jews. Pilate responded to them, saying, "What I have written, I have written" (John 19:22). It was as if God were speaking the truth through Pilate and would not allow the sign to be changed. The titulus, or small sign, stating the victim's crime was nailed to the cross above the head. However, Jesus had committed no crime. Pilate himself proclaimed that he found no fault in Christ and may have put this inscription on the cross of Jesus as a cruel jest to taunt the Jews. We don't know Pilate's motive for the words written on the sign, but Jesus' Lordship was proclaimed from the cross.

33They came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). 34There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it (Matthew 27:33-34).

The place of the crucifixion is also significant. It was likely outside the city gate and near a road where people would be passing. Jesus would have heard their insults. If you go to Jerusalem today, you will find more than one location identified as "Golgotha" or "Calvary" (which means The Place of the Skull), e.g., the Catholic Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Evangelical Garden Tomb or Gordon’s Calvary. There is evidence for both as well as suggestions as to why the place was so named. One is that there was a legend that Adam's skull was buried there. A second reason for Gordon's Calvary being a possible place was because the shape of the location looks like a skull. The third suggestion for Golgotha's name was that it was a place littered with crucified criminals' skulls. This third explanation is unlikely because Jewish law would not permit a body to decompose in the open.

The Roman crucifixion method would often last for days, and they would let the bodies decompose on the cross as a warning to others. However, the Scriptures demanded that those hung from a tree were taken down by nightfall (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Whatever the reason for the grim name, it was a desolate place, i.e., a place of rejection outside the community reserved for punishment where the King of Heaven gave Himself for us (Hebrews 13:12-13). It is worth noting that Israel's anointed priest had to completely burn up the sin offering of Israel, i.e., the sacrificial burnt offering, outside the camp (Leviticus 4:21). Here, we again see the foretelling of the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ outside the city gate. Thank you, Lord, for Your sacrifice of Yourself for us. Keith Thomas

Taken from the series on the Gospel of John, study 39, The Seven Sayings from the Cross