The death of Jesus is one of the most significant stories in history. Through His death, humankind can be reconciled to God. Each of the four gospels give an account of Jesus' crucifixion, sharing details about his capture and betrayal, his trial, his last words, and more. Jesus' sacrifice on the cross changed everything. And from Jesus' last night in the garden to his crucifixion, there's a lot for us to learn by examining the biblical accounts more closely.
Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me."
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will."
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Couldn't you men keep watch with me for one hour?" he asked Peter. "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."
He went away a second time and prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done."
When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer" (Matthew 26:36–46)!
After one last Passover meal together, Jesus took the disciples to Gethsemane, a garden at the base of the Mount of Olives to pray. He instructed most of the disciples to stay put and took James, John, and Peter off to pray with Him. Throughout the Gospels, we frequently see these three operating as an inner circle of sorts. For instance, they were the ones who were there to experience the transfiguration (Matthew 17).
What's particularly interesting to note is that Jesus is experiencing some anxiety and sadness regarding what He's about to endure. He communicates this to Peter, James, and John, telling them that He's sorrowful to the point of death. And He asks them to be there for Him.
Jesus comes back three times and they're asleep. Mark's Gospel tells us the second time that Jesus comes back, the three didn't even know what to say (Mark 14:40). They must have been so embarrassed. But then they fall asleep again!
The betrayal and arrest
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: "The one I kiss is the man; arrest him." Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, "Greetings, Rabbi!" and kissed him.
Jesus replied, "Do what you came for, friend."
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus' companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
"Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?"
In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, "Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled." Then all the disciples deserted him and fled ( Matthew 26:47–56).
Judas had arranged with the chief priests and elders to arrest the man that he greeted with a kiss. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus calls out this betrayal, "Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss" (Luke 22:48b)?
It's interesting that Matthew points out that one of the disciples cuts off the ear of the high priest's servant. John tells us that this disciple was Peter, and then tells us that Malchus was the name of the servant (John 18:10). It's Luke that offers the detail that Jesus heals Malchus' ear (Luke 22:51).
Luke then tells us that Jesus addresses the chief priests and elders:
Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns (Luke 22:52b–53).
An interesting detail
Mark's Gospel offers a detail not included in the other accounts:
A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind (Mark 14:51–52).
Some scholars believe that this strange detail is only offered in Mark's Gospel because the young man is Mark himself.
The examination of Annas
Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus. They bound him and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jewish leaders that it would be good if one man died for the people ( John 18:12–14).
During the evening, John tells us that Jesus is brought before Annas (also known as "Ananus.") John tells us that Annas was the father-in-law of the high priest named Caiaphas. And he was a high priest himself who fathered five sons who were also high priests, so he held a lot of political power among the priesthood which explains why Jesus is brought to Annas who hasn't been a high priest since AD 15.
It's during this interview that Peter denies the Lord the first time (John 18:15–18).
Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching.
"I have spoken openly to the world," Jesus replied. "I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said."
When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby slapped him in the face. "Is this the way you answer the high priest?" he demanded.
"If I said something wrong," Jesus replied, "testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?" Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest (John 18:19–24).
Jesus points out that He wasn't some subversive teacher sneaking around the countryside trying to quietly stir up a revolution. Everything He said, He said clearly and publicly.
Like any legitimate justice system, Judaism relied on the testimony of witnesses. Jesus challenges what's happening here. Everything about this exchange violates the legal ethics of the day. A private trial in a home with no witnesses present and striking an unconvicted prisoner was unacceptable.
Annas binds the Lord and sends Him off to Caiaphas.
Condemned on perjured testimony
Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled (Matthew 26:57).
Jesus is brought before the high priest. Matthew tells us that Peter followed in the shadows to see what was going to happen. In the meantime, Jesus is tried before the Sanhedrin.
The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward.
Finally two came forward and declared, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.'"
Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, "Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?" But Jesus remained silent.
The high priest said to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God."
"You have said so," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think?"
"He is worthy of death," they answered.
Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, "Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you" (Matthew 26:59–68)?
Matthew focuses on the fact that Jesus' trial was completely unfair. The whole Sanhedrin was looking to convict Him at all costs. It's essential to note that the law gives execution as the penalty for giving false testimony (Deuteronomy 19:16–21). It's also interesting that at least two witnesses were required for acceptable testimony, and wouldn't you know it, that's the exact number that comes forward.
Mark tells us that the witnesses didn't even offer a consistent testimony (Mark 14:56–59). Luke focuses on the abuse that Jesus suffered at their hands, and then shares Jesus' testimony. (Luke 22:63–71).
Peter's denial and Judas' regret
Throughout the evening, the Gospels intersperse Jesus' story with facts about what's occurring with other significant characters. People have recognized Peter, and he has denied knowing Jesus. On the third time he denies being affiliated with the Lord, he hears a rooster crow and remembers that Jesus predicted this exact scenario.
Luke tells us Peter and Jesus lock eyes at that instant (Luke 22:61).
Meanwhile, Judas has realized his grievous sin and returns the money he was paid for betraying the Lord. In shame, he went off and hung himself (Matthew 27:3–10).
Jesus questioned by Pilate
Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and asked, "What charges are you bringing against this man?"
"If he were not a criminal," they replied, "we would not have handed him over to you."
Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law."
"But we have no right to execute anyone," they objected. This took place to fulfill what Jesus had said about the kind of death he was going to die.
Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?"
"Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?"
"Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?"
Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place."
"You are a king, then!" said Pilate.
Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
"What is truth?" retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him" (John 18:28–38).
John gives us an intriguing glimpse into the tense relationship between Rome and Jerusalem. Pilate represents Rome in the minor province of Israel. Rome looked down on local jurisdictions executing their own because they didn't want places like Israel executing people who were loyal to Rome. The Jewish leaders are taking advantage of this fact. If they can get Rome to kill Jesus, they won't have to take responsibility for it.
Luke's Gospel shows them falsifying accusations in order to get Pilate to convict Jesus:
Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king" (Luke 23:1–2).
Pilate sends Jesus to Herod
On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.
When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies (Luke 23:6–12).
Here Pilate does the same thing that the Jewish leaders had done. When he saw an opportunity to make Jesus someone else's problem, he jumped on it, sending Jesus off to Herod. Ever the opportunist, Herod just wanted to see Jesus perform some tricks.
The chief priests and teachers were there to ensure that Herod did the right thing and convicted Jesus. But everything devolved into a violent and humiliating abuse of power.
Herod returns Jesus to Pilate
Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.
"Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate, knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.
"What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?" Pilate asked them.
"Crucify him!" they shouted.
"Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"
Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified (Mark 15:6–15).
While Pilate wasn't required to follow the local customs of releasing a prisoner during the Passover festival, Pilate is still trying to extricate himself from this situation. Mark tells us that he was well aware that the chief priests kept bringing Jesus before him out of self-interest.
On top of that, Matthew's Gospel informs us that Pilate's wife had begged him not to have anything to do with Jesus. She had been dreaming about Him and knew He was a righteous Man.
Pilate's plan is smart. By putting Barabbas up against Jesus, he's offering to let a murderer go free or a figure popular with common people around Judea. But the priests stirred up the crowd to call for Barabbas' release and have Jesus crucified.
Jesus scourged and mocked
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, "Hail, king of the Jews!" And they slapped him in the face.
Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, "Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him." When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!"
As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, "Crucify! Crucify!"
But Pilate answered, "You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him."
The Jewish leaders insisted, "We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God."
When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. "Where do you come from?" he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. "Do you refuse to speak to me?" Pilate said. "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?"
Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin."
From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar."
When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge's seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.
"Here is your king," Pilate said to the Jews.
But they shouted, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!"
"Shall I crucify your king?" Pilate asked.
"We have no king but Caesar," the chief priests answered.
Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus (John 19:1–16).
Throughout the night, Jesus has received ill treatment and mockery, but it reaches a fevered pitch here. On top of the scourging, which was common for those about to be crucified, Jesus endured the crown of thorns, royal robe, and ridicule.
We also see Pilate's attempts to have Jesus released becoming more pronounced. Again, he tells the priests that he doesn't see any reason to accuse him. Being the fair weather Roman citizens they are, they remind Pilate that calling oneself a king is a crime against Caesar—who they suddenly revere.
Pilate gives up and hands Jesus over to be crucified.
Jesus carries His cross to Golgotha
As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, 'Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!' 30 Then
"'they will say to the mountains, "Fall on us!"
and to the hills, "Cover us!"'
For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?"
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots (Luke 23:26–34).
Jesus' scourging would have left Him too weak to carry His cross. Simon, a Cyrene (North African) was conscripted to carry it for Him. It was not uncommon for Roman soldiers to force anyone to carry a load for up to a mile. Jesus addresses this very practice during the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:41).
The crucifixion of Jesus
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is God's Messiah, the Chosen One."
The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself."
There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!"
But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong."
Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Jesus answered him, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:32–43).
Matthew, Mark, and John include the presence of others crucified alongside Jesus. But it's Luke alone who tells us about this exchange leading to salvation. John gives us another important detail that the other Gospels omit.
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, "Woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home (John 19:25–27).
The "disciple Jesus loved" is the term John uses to reference himself (John 19:26, John 21:7). This exchange demonstrates the love and trust Jesus had in John.
It also tips us off that Jesus wasn't raised high into the air. On top of the extreme trauma that Jesus had already endured, crucifixion kills by asphyxiation (if they didn't die of shock first), denying the body of oxygen. Jesus would have needed to be close enough to the ground for John and the two Marys to hear his strained words.
The death of Jesus
Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: "Not one of his bones will be broken," and, as another scripture says, "They will look on the one they have pierced" (John 19:28–37).
The legs of the crucified were broken so the victim couldn't push themselves up to get a breath, which could sometimes drag a death out for days. Since it was the Sabbath of Passover week, the bodies needed to be taken down.
The seven last statements Jesus made have come to be known as the "Seven Last Words." They include:
- "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
- "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
- "Woman, here is your son ... Here is your mother" (John 19:26–27).
- "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Matthew 27:46)?
- "I am thirsty" (John 19:28).
- "It is finished" (John 19:30).
- "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).
You can learn more about these statements in "The Last Words of Jesus."
Why did Jesus have to die?
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why a cross is the symbol of Christianity? Doesn't it seem curious that a religious movement would adopt a device Rome used for torture and execution as its primary symbol?
Paul frequently speaks about the essential work that was done on the cross. For instance, in Colossians he tells us:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Colossians 2:13–15, emphasis added).
Jesus' death was part of God's plan to reconcile humanity from the very beginning. You can learn more by reading "Why Did Jesus Have to Die?"
Thankfully, Jesus' death isn't the end of the story. In the resurrection, Jesus conquered death and lives forever to guide His body the church and dwell forever with His people.