They gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink. And they crucified him.…
— Matthew 27:34,35
When Jesus arrived at Golgotha, the Bible says, “They gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall….” According to Jewish law, if a man was about to be executed, he could request a narcotic, mingled together with wine, which would help alleviate the pain of his execution. The word “gall” in this verse refers to this special painkiller that was mingled together with wine for this purpose.
There was a group of kind women in Jerusalem who made it their good deed to help anesthetize the pain of people who were dying horrific deaths. These women wanted to eliminate as much pain and misery as possible for the scores of people being crucified by the Romans. Therefore, they produced the homemade painkiller that Matthew tells us about in this verse.
*[If you started reading this from your email, begin reading here.]
Jesus was offered this anesthetic twice — once before His crucifixion and once while He was dying on the Cross (see Matthew 27:34,48). In both instances, Jesus turned down the offer and refused to drink it, for He knew that He was to fully consume this cup the Father had given Him to drink.
Verse 35 begins, “And they crucified him.…” The word “crucified” is the Greek word staurao, from the word stauros, which describes an upright, pointed stake that was used for the punishment of criminals. This word was used to describe those who were hung up, impaled, or beheaded and then publicly displayed. It was always used in connection with public execution. The point of hanging a criminal publicly was to bring further humiliation and additional punishment to the accused.
Crucifixion was indisputably one of the cruelest and most barbaric forms of punishment in the ancient world. Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian, described crucifixion as “the most wretched of deaths.” It was viewed with such horror that in one of Seneca’s letters to Lucilius, Seneca wrote that suicide was preferable to crucifixion.
Different parts of the world had different kinds of crucifixion. For example, in the East the victim was beheaded and then hung in public display. Among the Jews, the victim was first stoned to death and then hung on a tree. Deuteronomy 21:22,23 commanded, “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;)….”
But at the time Jesus was crucified, the grueling act of crucifixion was entirely in the hands of the Roman authorities. This punishment was reserved for the most serious offenders, usually for those who had committed some kind of treason or who had participated in or sponsored state terrorism.
Because Israel hated the occupying Roman troops, insurrections frequently arose among the populace. As a deterrent to stop people from participating in revolts, crucifixion was regularly practiced in Jerusalem. By publicly crucifying those who attempted to overthrow the government, the Romans sent a strong signal of fear to those who might be tempted to follow in their steps.
Once the offender reached the place where the crucifixion was to occur, he was laid on the crossbeam he carried (see April 23) with his arms outstretched. Then a soldier would drive a five-inch (12.5-centimeter) iron nail through each of his wrists into the crossbeam. After being nailed to the crossbeam, the victim was hoisted up by rope, and the crossbeam was dropped into a notch on top of the upright post.
When the crossbeam dropped into the groove, the victim suffered excruciating pain as his hands and wrists were wrenched by the sudden jerking motion. Then the weight of the victim’s body caused his arms to be pulled out of their arm sockets. Josephus writes that the Roman soldiers “out of rage and hatred amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures.” Crucifixion was truly a vicious ordeal.
When the victim was nailed to his cross, the nails were not driven through the palms of his hands, but through his wrists. Once the wrists were secured in place, the feet came next. First, the victim’s legs would be positioned so that the feet were pointed downward with the soles pressed against the post on which the victim was suspended. A long nail would then be driven between the bones of the feet, lodged firmly enough between those bones to prevent it from tearing through the feet as the victim arched upward, gasping for breath.
In order for the victim to breathe, he had to push himself up by his feet, which were nailed to the vertical beam. However, because the pressure on his feet became unbearable, it wasn’t possible for him to remain long in this position, so eventually he would collapse back into the hanging position.
As the victim pushed up and collapsed back down again and again over a long period of time, his shoulders eventually dislocated and popped out of joint. Soon the out-of-joint shoulders were followed by the elbows and wrists. These various dislocations caused the arms to be extended up to nine inches longer than usual, resulting in terrible cramps in the victim’s arm muscles and making it impossible for him to push himself upward any longer to breathe. When he was finally too exhausted and could no longer push himself upward on the nail lodged in his feet, the process of asphyxiation began.
Jesus experienced all of this torture. When He dropped down with the full weight of His body on the nails that were driven through His wrists, it sent excruciating pain up His arms, registering horrific pain in His brain. Added to this torture was the agony caused by the constant grating of Jesus’ recently scourged back against the upright post every time He pushed up to breathe and then collapsed back to a hanging position.
Due to extreme loss of blood and hyperventilation, the victim would begin to experience severe dehydration. We can see this process in Jesus’ own crucifixion when He cried out, “…I thirst” (John 19:28). After several hours of this torment, the victim’s heart would begin to fail. Next his lungs would collapse, and excess fluids would begin filling the lining of his heart and lungs, adding to the slow process of asphyxiation.
When the Roman soldier came to determine whether or not Jesus was alive or dead, he thrust his spear into Jesus’ side. One expert pointed out that if Jesus had been alive when the soldier did this, the soldier would have heard a loud sucking sound caused by air being inhaled past the freshly made wound in the chest. But the Bible tells us that water and blood mixed together came pouring forth from the wound the spear had made — evidence that Jesus’ heart and lungs had shut down and were filled with fluid. This was enough to assure the soldier that Jesus was already dead.
It was customary for Roman soldiers to break the lower leg bones of a person being crucified, making it impossible for the victim to push himself upward to breathe and thus causing him to asphyxiate at a much quicker rate. However, because of the blood and water that gushed from Jesus’ side, He was already considered dead. Since there was no reason for the soldiers to hasten Jesus’ death, His legs were never broken.
This, my friend, is a brief taste of Roman crucifixion.
The above description of crucifixion was exactly what Jesus experienced on the Cross when He died for you and me. This is why Paul wrote, “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8). In Greek the emphasis is on the word “even,” from the Greek word de, which dramatizes the point that Jesus lowered Himself to such an extent that He died even the death of a Cross — the lowest, most humiliating, debasing, shameful, painful method of death in the ancient world!
Now you understand why the kind women of Jerusalem prepared homemade painkillers for those being crucified. The agony associated with crucifixion is the reason they offered Jesus this “gall” once before the crucifixion began and again as He hung on the Cross.
Meanwhile, the soldiers near the foot of the Cross “…parted his garments, casting lots…” (Matthew 27:35). They didn’t understand the great price of redemption that was being paid at that moment as Jesus hung asphyxiating to death, His lungs filling with fluids so He couldn’t breathe.
According to Roman custom, the soldiers who carried out the crucifixion had a right to the victim’s clothes. Jewish law required that the person being crucified would be stripped naked. So there Jesus hung, completely open and naked before the world, while His crucifiers literally distributed His clothes among themselves!
Making this distribution of clothes even cheaper was the fact that the soldiers “cast lots” for His garments. The Gospel of John records that “…when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it…” (John 19:23,24).
This account informs us that four soldiers were present at Jesus’ crucifixion. The four parts of His clothing that were distributed among them were His head gear, sandals, girdle, and the tallith — the outer garment that had fringes on the bottom. His “coat,” which was “without seam,” was a handmade garment that was sewn together from top to bottom. Because it was specially handmade, this coat was a very expensive piece of clothing. This was the reason the soldiers chose to cast lots for it rather than tear it into four parts and spoil it.
When the Bible refers to “casting lots,” it indicates a game during which the soldiers wrote their names on pieces of parchment or wood or on stones and then dropped all four pieces with their names written on them into some kind of container. Because the Roman soldiers who helped crucify Jesus were remotely located, it is probable that one of them pulled off his helmet and held it out to the other soldiers. After the others dropped their names in the helmet, the soldier shook it to mix up the four written names and then randomly withdrew the name of the winner.
It is simply remarkable that all of this was taking place as Jesus was pushing down on that huge nail lodged in His feet so He could gasp for breath before sagging back down into a hanging position. As Jesus’ strength continued to drain away and the full consequence of man’s sin was being realized in Him, the soldiers at the foot of the Cross played a game to see who would get His finest piece of clothing!
Matthew 27:36 says, “And sitting down they watched him there.” The Greek word for “watch” is the word tereo, which means to guard. The Greek tense means to consistently guard or to consistently be on the watch. It was the responsibility of these soldiers to keep things in order, to keep watch over the crucifixion site, and to make sure no one came to rescue Jesus from the Cross. So as they cast lots and played games, the soldiers were also keeping watch out of the corners of their eyes to make certain no one touched Jesus as He hung dying on the Cross.
When I read about the crucifixion of Jesus, it makes me want to repent for the callousness with which the world looks upon the Cross today. In our society, the cross has become a fashion item, decorated with gems, rhinestones, gold, and silver. Beautiful crosses of jewelry adorn women’s ears and dangle at the bottom of gold chains and necklaces. The symbol of the cross is even tattooed on people’s flesh!
The reason this is so disturbing to me is that in beautifying the Cross to make it pleasing to look upon, people have forgotten that it wasn’t beautiful or lavishly decorated at all. In fact, the Cross of Jesus Christ was shocking and appalling.
Jesus’ totally naked body was flaunted in humiliation before a watching world. His flesh was ripped to shreds; His body was bruised from head to toe; He had to heave His body upward for every breath He breathed; and His nervous system sent constant signals of excruciating pain to His brain. Blood drenched Jesus’ face and streamed from His hands, His feet, and from the countless cuts and gaping wounds the scourging had left upon His body. In reality, the Cross of Jesus Christ was a disgusting, repulsive, nauseating, stomach-turning sight — so entirely different from the attractive crosses people wear today as a part of their jewelry or attire.
At this time of the year, it would be good for all of us as believers to take a little time to remember what the Cross of Jesus Christ was really like. If we don’t deliberately choose to meditate on what He went through, we will never fully appreciate the price He paid for us. How tragic it would be if we lost sight of the pain and the price of redemption!
When we fail to remember what it cost Jesus to save us, we tend to treat our salvation cheaply and with disregard. That’s why the apostle Peter wrote, “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18,19).
The kind women of Jerusalem wanted to anesthetize Jesus to remove His pain. He refused their painkiller and entered into the experience of the Cross with all His faculties. Let’s not allow the world to anesthetize us, causing us to overlook or forget the real price that was paid on the Cross.
Why not take time today to let the reality of the Cross sink deep into your heart and soul? As you do, you’ll find that it will cause you to love Jesus so much more than you love Him right now!
My Prayer for Today
Lord, help me never to forget the price You paid on the Cross for my salvation. Please forgive me for the times my life starts moving so fast that I fail to remember what You did for me. No one else could have taken my place. No one else could have paid the price for my sin. So You went to the Cross, bearing my sin, my sickness, my pain, and my lack of peace. That Cross was the place where the price was paid for my deliverance. Today I want to thank You from the very depths of my heart for doing this for me!
I pray this in Jesus’ name!
My Confession for Today
I boldly and thankfully confess that the blood of Jesus Christ was shed for me! That precious blood covered my sin and washed me clean, and today it gives me a rightstanding before God. Because of the Cross, I am redeemed from sin, sickness, pain, and torment. Satan no longer has a right to lay any claim on me! From a grateful heart, I will faithfully serve Jesus the rest of my days!
I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!
Questions to Answer
1. How long has it been since you’ve really looked at the Cross and considered what Jesus did for you on Calvary?
2. Can you remember the day you turned to the Lord, repented of your sin, and gave your life to Jesus? When was that day in your life? Where were you when it happened?
3. Do you have family members, friends, associates, or fellow workers who are unsaved? Have you ever told them the best news in the world — that Jesus died for them so they could be saved and their lives changed forever? If you haven’t told them yet, why not?