The crucifixion. We say the words and immediately everyone knows what we are talking about. As Fleming Rutledge reminds us in The Crucifixion, “There have been many famous deaths in world history; we might think of John F. Kennedy, or Marie Antoinette, or Cleopatra, but we do not refer to ‘the assassination,’ ‘the guillotining,’ or ‘the poisoning’” (3).
The Romans, not known for being merciful executioners, left the crucified on the cross until they died—even if it took several days. In John 19, because of the impending Sabbath, the Jewish religious leaders asked Pilate to have the soldiers break the legs of the crucified men, which prevented them from pushing themselves up so they could breathe, thus hastening their death by suffocation. In its own way, it was a severe mercy. The soldiers therefore broke the legs of the criminals crucified alongside Jesus; but when they came to him, they saw that he was already dead.
Since the cross was intended to drag out suffering for as long as possible, it is a surprise to find that Jesus was already dead. But he was dead before he ever lived. In a sense, he was dead before he ever reached the cross, because every day of his life pointed to this day when he would willingly drink the cup of God’s wrath for sin. He was already dead the day he was born—this one who would save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:22). He was already dead the day John the Baptist called him “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He was already dead when he rebuked Satan in the wilderness for offering him the kingship without suffering (Matt. 4:9). He was already dead when the crowds turned away because he told them they would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:53). He was already dead as he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, weeping over the city that kills its prophets (Luke 19:41). He refused to retreat from the way of the cross.
So, of course, he was already dead when the soldiers came to break his legs.
Triumphant over the power of sin and Satan at the cross, Jesus gave up his Spirit. He completed his work and is the object of God’s special care: his tomb is prepared, his friends retrieve his body, and they bury him with honor.
But we can’t rush past those four words: “He was already dead.”
His death isn’t just another famous death. His death is also your death. In Christ, you are already dead, so the Accuser has no power over you when he throws your sin in your face and reminds you of your faithlessness. In Christ, you are already dead, so there is no death sentence over you when you stand before God on the last day. In Christ, you are already dead. His work is complete, and you are now the object of God’s special care.
Eric Landry is executive editor of Modern Reformation.