17.  And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha,

Thus, He bears His cross, as all condemned to be crucified were made to do, and carries it to the place of crucifixion.  This is called the Place of a Skull.  In Aramaic (not Hebrew again) this is Golgotha, which also means the “Place of a Skull.”  Remember, according to God’s law an Israelite became unclean when he touched any part of a dead body.  Thus, a great fear that the Israelites always had was that they would become unclean somehow and not know it.  The places where men were buried were always clearly marked so that no one could mistake them.  They would take the time to bury people deeply, for there were animals that would attempt to dig up the bodies as food, if they could.  Yet even with their precautions, there were times when human bones or other remains might be found in a place where they were not supposed to be.  Once such a thing had been found at a site, a visitor there could no longer be certain that there were not other remains at that site that he might accidentally, or even unknowingly, come in contact with and make himself unclean.  Thus, from then on, that place would be marked as unclean, and men would no longer use it for anything but unclean things, like a garbage dump.  That is what had happened at this “Place of a Skull.”  Someone had found a skull there, and from then on, the place was considered unclean.  As such, it was a perfect place to use as an execution site, since it was already considered spoiled land.  And since it was near the road, it meant that crucifixions done there would be a public spectacle, which is exactly what the Romans wanted.  A person on a cross was a great deterrent, and would remind people what could happen to them should they defy Rome.  Therefore, this place had become the place where they took those condemned to crucifixion in Jerusalem to crucify them.

It has been pointed out by many that the Greek word for “cross” here, stauros, does not mean two pieces of wood fixed one horizontal to the other, as we think of a cross.  Rather, it is the word for “stake.”  This has led some to believe that the Lord was not actually crucified on a cross, but on a single pole stuck in the ground.  For a long time, this was difficult to verify or deny.  The use of the cross as a symbol of Christianity did not occur until almost four centuries after the Lord’s return to heaven.  This is because, to the ancient believers, the cross was still a symbol of a terrible death, and no one really wanted to be reminded of it, whether or not Christ hung on one.  It was only as crucifixion as a common method of execution died out that the use of a cross as a religious symbol became popular.  The symbol used most by the early Christians was the fish.  Yet, as archaeological exploration has continued, evidence has been collected that shows that it is likely that our concept of a cross is actually what the Romans used.

Why is the cross called a “stake” in Scripture?  I think we need to compare this to other forms of execution that are common in our day.  We all know what “the chair” is.  It is a term for the electric chair, a modern method of execution.  Why then do we call it just “the chair”?  We know that this is far more than just a common chair you would sit in to rest yourself!  It is as if we are trying to soften the word, giving it a nickname, and yet somehow this shortened form almost makes it more terrifying.  This is a common phenomenon when it comes to methods of execution.  “The noose” is another we know of, although hanging is not as common a method of execution now as it once was.  So, it is common that we shorten or simplify the names of lethal devices used for execution.  And I believe it was the same way with the cross.  They called this instrument of torment and death, “the stake.”  That certainly was not a technical term, nor did it express the actual construction of the instrument of execution used.  Yet it was the chilling term that came to be applied to this most horrible instrument of death.  Just because this is the word they used does not mean that the Lord was crucified on a stake with no crosspiece.  The term is not a technical explanation.  It is the common word used for something the people hated and feared, and was adopted by the same rules that give us the terms, “the chair” or “the noose.”  How exactly crosses were made and people were hung on them is somewhat of a mystery that historians seek to solve.  Yet whatever the answer might be, it will be found that it harmonizes with what the Scriptures tell us perfectly.

18.  Where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center.

Here at this “Place of the Skull” they crucify Him, and two others with Him on either side.  The Greek literally reads, “other two with Him here and there,” meaning “on this side and on that side.”  I believe that this means that two were crucified on each side of Him, and that there were actually five men crucified with the Lord that day.  Two of them were malefactors, rebels against the Roman government.  Two others were thieves caught stealing and convicted to crucifixion for it.  This is my conviction from studying the matter out.  Yet we will not debate the matter here.  You can read more about my thoughts on this in my message on “Contradictions in Scripture: The Reviling of the Thieves.”  One thing we can say for certain, and that is that however many were crucified there, the Lord Jesus was crucified in the middle of them.

How was the Lord hung on the cross?  This is another matter of debate.  Many have pointed out that nails through the hands would not hold a body up, but that the nails would tear out.  This is true.  Thus, they suggest that the nails were actually put through the wrists.  And yet nails in the wrists would cause one to bleed to death.  The answer that archaeologists have discovered is that the nails were not used by themselves to hold a man on the cross, but that the victims were actually tied on the cross with ropes.  This allowed the nails to remain in place without ripping out.  Sometimes, in fact, the ropes would be used without nails at all.  Yet they could be used together, and no doubt often were to maximize the discomfort felt by the one being crucified.

19.  Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross.  And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Pilate writes this title to be placed on the cross.  As I said above, the cross was used as a deterrent.  It was sort of like an advertising sign or billboard, saying to all who passed by, “This is what happens to one who rebels against Rome or who disobeys her laws.”  As such, the sign over the cross that indicated the crime for which the accused was being crucified was essential to producing the desired effect.  Thus, an accusation had to be written for the Lord’s cross.  Yet what could it say, since Pilate well knew that the Lord had done nothing wrong?  There was only one thing it could say, and that is what he wrote.  The Lord was “King of the Jews.”  That is all anyone could accuse Him of, and that is exactly why those who condemned Him wished Him to die.

It is highly unlikely that Pilate came to the crucifixion site to put the title on the cross, so he must have written it before it left his presence to be placed on the cross at the proper time.

There is a difficulty here, in that none of the four gospels agree on the exact wording of what was written on the cross.  Matthew reads, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  Mark says, “The King of the Jews.”  Luke declares it to be, “This is the King of the Jews.”  And John here reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  These inscriptions obviously cannot all be right.  One or the other of these must have been used, and not the others.  What is the explanation for this?  Is this an unsolvable “contradiction in Scripture?”

First of all, we can eliminate Mark from the controversy, for the words in Mark are never stated to have been the title placed above His cross.  Rather, Mark calls these words “the inscription of His accusation.”  This is probably what was written in the official Roman records as the accusation against Him, and had nothing to do with the inscriptions placed on His cross at all.  Yet this still leaves us with the contradiction between the other three gospels, all of which definitely do record writing placed on His cross.  We will consider this as we look at the next few verses.

20.  Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

Here we have the first possible explanation for this apparent “contradiction.”  The words of the accusation against the Lord were written in three languages, Hebrew (or Aramaic,) Greek, and Latin.  Thus, the exact wording of the three may have been different.  Perhaps Pilate was not an expert at these languages, and just wrote what came most easily to his mind in the languages he was less familiar with.  Thus, the Hebrew read slightly different from the Greek, and the Latin read slightly different from the other two.  Thus, Matthew, Luke, and John each record what was said in one of the three different languages, translating it to Greek.  This is one very possible explanation of this apparent contradiction.  Yet there are other explanations possible, as we will understand as we continue on with the passage.

Many of the Jews read this title.  This was in accord with crucifixion being a deterrent.  Such a sight would surely have been enough to chill the heart of the most dedicated rebel.  Thus, the Romans would pick places along the main roadways to conduct their crucifixions.  This place where the Lord was crucified was near the city of Jerusalem, and along the main thoroughfare into the city, so He was seen by many that day.

Why is it said that the “Jews” read this title?  As we have seen in John, “Jews” is the term used to refer to the rich, privileged class in Israel.  Why were they the only ones to read it?  The answer to this is quite simple: the rich Jews were generally the only ones who knew how to read.  The sign may have been written in Aramaic, but that did little for the common Israelite who couldn’t read a word no matter what language it was written in.  Thus, it was the Jews, the ones who could read, who read this title.

21.  Therefore the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘He said, “I am the King of the Jews.”’”

This is an interesting phrase, “the chief priests of the Jews,” that occurs only here.  It is clear that they are no longer considered God’s chief priests, if indeed they ever were.  Yet this phrase might also be used to tie them back to whom they were really concerned about pleasing: the Jews, their fellow rich citizens.  They were reading this accusation, and it was embarrassing the priests.  Thus, they go to Pilate in an attempt to get him to change the writing.  They want Pilate to change the writing to “He said, ‘I am the King of the Jews.’”  They must have felt this would be much more fitting, and would not make them out to have brought about the crucifixion of their own King!

22.  Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

Pilate, far too late, seems to finally get his courage up here, and refuses to grant the chief priests’ request.  Yet here we see another possible answer to our dilemma of the four different titles on the cross.  What if Pilate actually changed the title, in a compromise with the Jews, after the Lord was already on the cross?  If we examine the passages in question, we will see this is possible, and indeed seems to be required by following to the letter what is said in the text.  For here in John 19:19, we read that “Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross.”  Yet examining Matthew 27:35-37 reveals that the soldiers put the inscription, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews,” up over His head after they had parted His garments.  This was probably Pilate’s first compromise with the Jews.  Then, in Luke 23:38, we can see that an inscription, “This is the King of the Jews,” was written over Him, apparently by someone (perhaps on a ladder?) while He hung on the cross.  This took place after he was reviled by the people and offered wine by the soldiers (Luke 23:34-37,) whereas in Matthew these things happened after the second inscription was put up.  The Luke writing takes place after He had been on the cross for several hours, just before the “sixth hour” of verse 44.  It was also written in a different order, with Hebrew after Greek and Latin instead of before as in the original writing (Luke 23:38.)  Mark 15:26, as we have already seen, was never placed over His cross, but was merely an “inscription of His accusation written above.”  It was no doubt what was recorded in the official Roman documents regarding the case.

Thus, there is no contradiction here.  The Jews’ complaints caused Pilate to change the accusation against the Lord twice, perhaps to compromise with them, or perhaps to just continue to rub it in their faces.  Making careful note of the different times when the inscriptions are mentioned in the gospels, we can see when these took place, and that they are not the same.  Again, there is no contradiction in Scripture here.  This is just like all the other supposed “contradictions” we have seen.  It is caused in the minds of those reading by failing to note carefully what the Scriptures actually say.

23.  Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic.  Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece.

These were probably the “grunt” soldiers who actually did the crucifying, or non-Roman slave soldiers who were attached to the legion and used for undesirable jobs like this one.  The garments of the crucified one are their prerequisite, and so they take the Lord’s to divide among them.  When they get to the tunic, however, it is without seam, and so is not easy to divide.  The word is the Greek chiton, which is a robe worn next to the body, an “underrobe,” we might call it.  This is proof that Christ was not wearing a nice loincloth when He was on the cross, but rather was naked.  Another aspect of crucifixion was the shame of public nakedness without being able to cover yourself.  Being crucified was not a nice thing to go through!

24.  They said therefore among themselves, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be,” that the Scripture might be fulfilled which says: “They divided My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots.”  Therefore the soldiers did these things.

The soldiers do not want to tear the undergarment and destroy it.  Being woven in one piece, tearing it could cause it to unravel and be destroyed.  Thus, they decide to cast lots for it.  This seems the sensible thing for them to do.  However, unbeknownst to them, this simple action on their parts fulfilled a Scripture, Psalm 22:18, which said that this would happen.  All was happening according to the plan of God!

Otis Q. Sellers points out an interesting fact regarding this action.  Notice that the prophecy of Psalm 22:18 only says that this will happen.  It does not say who will do it.  These soldiers became the ones who did this.  Yet it did not have to be them.  It could have been others.  The same is true of Judas.  It was predicted that the Lord would be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver, but it was never said who would do it.  Judas became the one who did it, but if he had chosen not to it could have been another.  And the same is true in II Timothy 3:1-2, which tells us that “in the last days perilous times will come: for men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud,” etc.  Notice that it says that this will happen.  Yet it does not say that you will be a lover of yourself or of money or a boaster or proud.  If you become this way, then you will be a part of the fulfillment of this prophecy, but you do not have to do so.  The prophecy must be fulfilled, but you still have a choice as to whether you will be a part of it.

25.  Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

The Lord had many faithful women followers, and now these are clustered by the cross, viewing the terrible sight of their Lord hanging there.  It is interesting that His mother is with them, for we have not seen her mentioned as being with the Lord up until now.  This does not necessarily mean she had become a follower of His, but she would have been at the feast just like all good Israelites would have been, and would have heard about the crucifixion of her oldest Son, as everyone else did.  Thus, she stands at the cross with her sister, and with the women who followed Him, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  As is usual with John, he minimizes information about himself, for his own mother was also here (Matthew 27:56,) yet he does not mention her.

26.  When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!”

The Lord’s death would have been a terrible thing for Mary (or Miriam, as her name properly appears in the Greek,) for not only was her child dying, but He was the oldest Son, and the one in charge of taking care of her now that Joseph her husband was dead.  Remember, a widow with no son to care for her was in a very bad way in that day.  Thus, the Lord, seeing her standing by, immediately acts to see to it that she is taken care of.  Yet does He turn to His brothers, as we might expect?  Normally, the second oldest son would have been the one to take on the job of caring for the mother.  And yet where were His brothers?  They did not yet believe in Him!  Thus, He turns the care of His mother over to “the disciple whom He loved,” John himself.  Again, notice that John uses this familiar substitute for his own name, not wanting to bring glory to himself in the gospel written only to bring glory to Jesus Christ as God.

Now the Lord calls Mary, “Woman.”  Remember in chapter 2 we discussed the fact that this was not an almost rude term, as it would be in English, but a term of endearment.  Then, He tells Mary to “behold your son!” when she sees John.   This meant that he was the one who would care for her now that her eldest Son was going to die.

27.  Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!”  And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

The Lord now speaks to John and tells him to consider Mary his mother.  And we read that John was faithful to the command the Lord had given him, and from that hour he took her into his own home, becoming totally responsible for her well-being.  It was shameful that the Lord did not entrust His brothers with this task.  It is clear that He did not consider them up to it.  Thank God that at least some of them changed and became believers after the Lord was raised from the dead!