The Unsurpassed Suffering of Jesus on the Cross

Jesus didn’t just die for us. He experienced unsurpassed suffering and excruciating pain to save us. The Bible says:

“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.”

Psalm 22:14-15

Jesus’ physical pain is described as being “poured out like water.” This is a reference to his complete exhaustion and the fullness of his sufferings. Like water being poured out and absorbed into the ground, there is nothing left. Nothing is held back. It is completely gone. 

Having been scourged Jesus would have suffered from hypovolemia as the result of blood loss and probably shock as well. Roman scourgings were brutal, intended to beat a person to the door of death and back off. (Read more about this HERE.). Hypovolemia, which is very similar to shock, happens when the there isn’t enough blood to fill the circulatory system. To compensate the body will constrict blood vessels, increase the heart rate and move blood away from the outer parts of the body to conserve blood flow to the vital organs. This can cause a paleness as blood moves away from the skin. Blood pressure drops and a person can experience sweating, fatigue, light-headedness and dehydration. As blood moves away from the extremities (the hands and feet), the body temperature drops because oxygen is not being fully delivered to all the tissues. As a result a person’s body will shiver as a way of trying to stimulate more heat.  

After Jesus was laid on the cross and nailed into position, the cross would have been raised. The jolt of the cross dropping into a hole would often dislocated joints and if it didn’t, the strain of pulling the body weight up on the nails within minutes would have dislocated the wrists, the elbows and the shoulders. As the Psalmist wrote, “all my bones are out of joint” (Psalm 22:14). 

The Psalmist continued by saying, “My heart is turned to wax.” This phrase mostly likely doesn’t refer to physical suffering but to His spiritual suffering. His physical heart did not melt but God poured out His wrath on Him. Ezekiel 21:31 speaks of God’s wrath in this way: “I will pour out my indignation on you. I will blow on you with the fire of my wrath.” This melting was the result of the intense wrath of God being poured out on His own Son as a substitute for us.

At this point, on the cross, physically Jesus’ heart would have been racing. Being stretched out on the cross with His arms stretched up and out caused the intercostal and pectoral muscles to be stretched. This would put pressure on muscles used for breathing, fixing the rib cage in a position that hindered the crucifixion victim from fully exhaling. Try this experiment: Stand up, take a deep breath and hold it for a second. Exhale and feel how your rib cage relaxes downward. This allows you to exhale out the carbon dioxide and to take in more oxygen. On the cross, however, the body position make it extremely difficult to exhale and impossible to take in a full breath. Pulling up on the nails in the hands and pushing down on the nail in the feet allowed the lungs more room to inhale and exhale but breathing on the cross would have still been shallow. This may explain why Jesus made very short statements from the cross. 

Without being able to fully exhale, carbon dioxide would began to build up in the body. Breathing would become increasingly more difficult as time passed, causing a slow form of suffocation (asphyxiation) by hypoxia. The tissues in the body would not be receiving an adequate supply of oxygen. The lungs wouldn’t be able to take in a full breath. In addition, the lungs would begin to fill with fluid, a condition called pulmonary edema. Although pulmonary edema can be caused by trauma and injury, the most common cause is heart failure, when the heart simply can’t keep up with the demands of the body. 

The victim’s muscles, from loss of blood and lack of oxygen, would have undergone severe cramping and spasmodic contractions. The body would begin to experience acidosis, the build up of too many acids in the tissues and body fluids. The lack of oxygen would have also caused rapid breathing and even more stress on the heart as the body would try to pump blood faster to distribute more oxygen. This condition would have caused nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness. All of this describes the vicious cycle of the body as it slowly suffocates, which would often result in heart failure. 

Often when the Romans crucified victims, especially if they wanted to prolong the suffering, they would attach a sedulum to the cross. The sedulum was a piece of wood that would act like a seat on which the victim could rest the weight of his body. With the arms stretch up and out, as shortness of breath increased, the victim could shift his body off of the sedulum to place all the weight on the feet. Pushing against the nail would help the breathing but eventually as the pain became unbearable in the legs and feet, the victim would slump his weight back onto the sedulum, pulling on his wrists and stretching the chest muscles. Pulling up on the nails would help the breathing but also cause excruciating pain by pulling on dislocated joints with your entire body weight supported by the nails. Eventually the victim would become exhausted. The arms would become paralyzed from the strain and being exhausted or slipping into unconsciousness, he would not be able to lift his body off the sedulum. In this position the respiration muscles essentially paralyzed and the victim would suffocate and die. (DePasquale, N. P. and G. E. Burch. 1963. “Death by Crucifixion.” American Heart Journal 66: 434.)

The Psalmist continued, “My strength is dried up like a potsherd.” This is yet another expression of the complete exhaustion of our Savior. He is compared to a broken piece of earthenware that has been baked in the sun for too long. It’s all dried up.

“And my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.” Jesus is not just thirsty because He hasn’t had anything to drink. The conditions described above would have complete dehydrated Him. His mouth is dry and His tongue is most likely swollen as His body would have reduced saliva production to try to conserve fluid. This kind of thirst is so powerful that the Psalmist describes death here in terms of dust: “…you lay me in the dust of death.”

Overall, the unsurpassed suffering of Jesus on the cross was the price that had to be paid to save us. Jesus didn’t just die for us. He suffered for us. He carried the full weight of our sin. He bore our punishment. He paid the debt of our death but He didn’t stay dead. Three days later He rose from the dead and by His death and resurrection, only He can save us from our sin and give us the life that we were created to have.

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