Why do Christians celebrate Easter?

Question
Why do Christians celebrate Easter?
Answer
Easter, also known as Resurrection Sunday, is a Christian celebration even though it’s widely celebrated with Easter egg hunts, Easter baskets, and recitings of myths about an Easter bunny. Regardless, the death on a cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ actually have a much more powerful, eternal, and life-changing significance. Easter is the annual commemoration of the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion death which occurred over two thousand years ago.

Let's briefly glimpse at this historical event for a moment by looking at this:

So Pilate released Barabbas to them. He ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip, then turned him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified (Matt. 27:26, NLT).

This text refers to crucifixion, a tortuous death practiced in Roman times, but is still practiced by some groups in the Middle East even today. It is considered one of the cruelest and most violent forms of death and torture that exists! As a former homicide detective, I had to study such things. As a Christian, I desire to study Christ's crucifixion and death for enrichment of my faith. Prepare yourself. This is no bunny myth or joyous egg hunt kind of answer. Crucifixion is grotesque and no human being should have to endure such a cruelty. Yet Jesus, the Son of the living God, did so willingly!

The History of the Roman Cross

The Romans apparently learned the practice of crucifixion from the Carthaginians. A crucifixion cross in that day actually consisted of two parts. In Latin these are called the stipes, or upright portion, and the patibulum, which is the crossarm. Normally a victim of such torture would have carried this crossarm that weighed some 75-125 pounds from their prison to their place of execution. Historical accounts reveal that the nails driven into the victim's hands were most likely driven between the small bones of their wrists. Nails were driven into the victim's feet as well. There would also be a titulus, a small sign describing the victim's alleged crime(s) that was placed on a staff and carried in front of the procession from prison. This would later be nailed to the sufferer's cross.

The Historical Cross of Jesus

It could take an entire book for a full forensic examination of Christ's crucifixion and death along with the biblical account, but here we’ll just briefly comment on some significant and poignant parts.

Jesus' suffering didn't begin at his cross. It began in a garden called Gethsemane. There Jesus was in deep intense prayer. Even though his crucifixion was preordained (1 Pet. 1:19-20; cf. Acts 2:22-24; 4:47-28), he was now about to embark upon this trial of trials and death of deaths. Luke, the beloved physician, records it this way: “being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Bloody sweat is known as hematidrosis and is a well-documented medical condition. Under tremendous emotional stress, small capillaries in the sweat glands can break and mix with one's sweat. Jesus, an innocent man, was preparing to die for the sins of all his people who were written in the Lamb's book of life from before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). He would have been in a great emotional duress, and yet he did not sin.

Very soon after praying in Gethsemane, Jesus was betrayed by Judas, someone he had spent three years of his life with and loved. Yet, being God, Jesus knew how Judas would die, and he knew Judas was going to an eternal hell (John 17:12). Though Judas' punishment was entirely just, this would have also been emotionally traumatic for Christ (cf. Matt 23:37).

Jesus was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin and Caiphus, the high priest. While being questioned by Caiphus, a soldier struck Jesus across the face (John 18:22). The palace guards blind-folded, mocked, and spat on the King of kings (Matt. 26:67); being blind-folded Jesus couldn't anticipate their blows. He must have been badly bruised, his mouth and eyes possibly injured and bleeding. Picture this innocent man – God in the flesh – suffering utter disrespect!

Jesus had suffered unlimited emotional distress and unwarranted cruelty. He has also been betrayed and rejected by his closest friends. He knew Peter would deny him, not just once but three times. There had been a sleepless night of walking substantial distances between prejudiced hearings. By early morning a battered, bruised, dehydrated and exhausted Jesus was brought to see Pontius Pilate and there the people rejected him and demanded the release of another who was an actual criminal. Pilate condemned Jesus to scourging and crucifixion (Matt. 27:22, 23, 24, 25, 26; John 19:1).

Many people didn't survive even scourging in that day. Romans weren't subject to enforcing a Jewish law of forty lashes save one (cf. 2 Cor. 11:24), still Jesus was flogged. He was stripped of his clothing, and his hands tied to a post above his head. There a Roman legionnaire with a short whip or scourge (flagrum) in his hand would have administered stinging blows. This type of whip consisted of numerous heavy leather thongs with two small balls of lead or iron near the ends of each. Pieces of sheep bone were sometimes included. Over and over this whip was brought down upon Jesus' shoulders, back, buttocks, thighs, and legs. At first the metal balls would have made superficial cuts and bruising on Jesus' body. However, as the blows continued they would cut deeper into subcutaneous tissue, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Capillary bleeding, and bleeding from veins and arteries in his underlying muscles would have resulted. Large deep bruises and cuts which would break open with the ongoing blows. The shards of sheep's bone ripped the flesh as the whip was drawn backwards so that long ribbons of skin would hang off Jesus' back and shoulders.

Eventually the centurion in charge saw that Jesus was near death and stopped the barbaric blows. The battered, bloody, bruised, dehydrated, disfigured, and exhausted Jesus, now labeled “King of the Jews” would have been untied only to slump over into a pool of his own blood. The Romans threw a robe on Jesus, placed a crown of thorns on his head and a reed (stick) in his right hand. Some soldiers mockingly knelt before him saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" (Matt. 27:28-29). Little did they know.

The crown they had placed on his head would have pressed into Jesus' scalp. Again there would have been profuse bleeding. As if not enough, after mocking him the soldiers struck Jesus across the head driving the thorns even deeper into his scalp. The robe very likely adhered to the clotting blood of Jesus' wounds by now. As if uncaringly ripping off a bandage, the soldiers tore the robe from Jesus' back. Any closed wounds would have been reopened. Jesus' pain intensified.

Historical records reveal that the heavy crossbar of the cross would be tied across Jesus' shoulders. Bearing this on his ripped and bleeding shoulders, a procession would begin down the Via Dolorosa, or the Way of Sorrow. For approximately two thousand feet, or eight hundred steps, the innocent Jesus would have struggled. In the company of two convicted thieves, he was taunted and ridiculed as he slowly marched to outside the city walls and to impending execution. Each and every tortuous step moved Jesus closer to his preordained death.

With so much blood loss and the weight of the crossbar on his back, Jesus collapsed. This most likely caused even more excoriating pain as the weight of the wooden beam further traumatized Jesus' already severely weakened body. Unable to get back up, the centurion compelled an onlooker, Simon of Cyrene, to carry Jesus' cross (Mark 15:21). Jesus would have slowly followed, still bleeding and growing physically weaker with each and every step. Yet, without fault, he endured it.

Upon arrival at Golgotha (Place of the Skull, Matt. 27:33), Jesus was offered a drink. He tasted but then refused this mixture of wine and gall.

The crossbar Simon had carried would be ordered to the ground. As a willing sacrifice (John 10:18), a passive Jesus would have been thrown backward to press his already shredded shoulders against a wooden beam. An experienced Roman soldier would then have felt for the depression at the front of Jesus' wrist and driven an approximately 6-inch heavy nail through his wrist deep into the wooden beam. With one hand now staked, the soldier would move to the other and repeat this hideous process. These nails likely severed Jesus' large sensorimotor median nerve causing excruciating pain in both his arms. One foot would have been placed over the other and Jesus' feet would have extended with his toes downward. Then another iron nail would have been driven through the arch of each of Jesus' feet. This would have gone through the first or second intermetatarsal space, leaving the knees just slightly flexed. No arteries would have been severed. The patibulum would then be lifted into place at the top of the stipes. The titulus reading "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" would be nailed in place.

Clearly crucifixion was a precise art form perfected by the Romans to prolong death and maximize the sufferers' pain and torment.

Now affixed to the cross, a new horror would begin for Jesus as a hideous cycle of pain. It would be difficult for him to exhale in order to take in fresh air and would have required him to push his body against his nailed feet. This in turn would have torn the nerves between the metatarsal bones of his feet resulting in even more anguishing torment. With this intolerable pain, Jesus would again slump down to hang by his arms. But hanging by his arms and unable to breathe, he would have had to push with his feet to again inhale briefly again slump down — a cycle that would have continued for hours. His still bleeding back would scrape against the wood with each cycle of motion. Gradually his arms would fatigue and cramp. The pain would be relentless and unimaginable at this point. Fatigue and cramping would make it more difficult for Jesus to lift himself. His pectoral muscles connecting the front of his chest with the bones of the upper arm and shoulder would slowly become paralyzed. Muscles between ribs that move the chest wall would become unable to respond. Jesus would scarcely breathe and barely exhale. He would fight within this cycle for even one short breath. Slowly carbon dioxide would build up in his lungs and bloodstream.

Jesus Never Faltered

To those that crucified him he said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34).

To the elect penitent thief next to him he said, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43).

In one short breath, Jesus said to his mother, "Woman, this is your son." Then he said to John, "This is your mother" (John 19:26-27).

In the midst of tremendous pain and torment, Jesus' thought about others — those who crucified him, the thief suffering next to him, and his very own mother. What kind of man is this? He's the incarnate Son of the living God.

In the midst of many tormented hours of pain, cramps, twisting and striving in sporadic but incomplete gaspings for breath, how much clearer the words of the psalmist become:

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast" (Psa. 22:14).
He suffered from one agony to another. As Isaiah recorded:
'He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief... He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities... He was oppressed, and he was afflicted... Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hang' (Isa. 53:3-12).

During the course of his torture for his people, Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). Slowly the pericardium or membrane enclosing his heart filled with more fluid, compressing his heart. Fluid loss would have come to a critical level. He said, "I thirst" (John 19:28-29). A sponge soaked with wine vinegar was placed on a hyssop branch and raised to Jesus' lips. Dehydrated and with little blood flow and oxygen, he nears his final breath. Then Jesus says, "It is finished" (John 19:30). At this point, Jesus has satisfied God's requirement for justice (Rom. 5:1). He has paid the full penalty of the sins of his people (Rom. 4:25). He once more presses up upon his torn tattered feet against the iron nail. He straightens his legs raising himself just slightly and takes one last breath uttering his final words, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46).

A soldier would drive a lance through a space between his ribs upward into his heart (cf. John 19:34), but for Jesus there was no crural fracture, the common crucifixion practice of breaking the bones of both legs. (John 19:32-33). Jesus was dead!

At the appointed hour at Calvary, atonement was made for the sins of Jesus' people. Justice was satisfied. The earth quaked. The temple veil split from top to bottom, and the graves sent back their dead. But the Easter story doesn’t end here.

Jesus' Resurrection from the Dead

He is not here; he has risen! . . . (Matt. 28:6; Luke 24:6-7).

On Friday Jesus's body was prepared with spices and laid in a borrowed tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea. A huge bolder was placed over its entrance (Matt. 27:57-60). Soldiers were put on watch so no one could steal Jesus' body (Matt. 27:62-67). The tomb was secured like Ft. Knox. No one was going in and no one was going out. At least so many thought.

Three days later at Sunday dawn there was an earthquake. An angel of the Lord came down from heaven and rolled back the stone and sat upon it (Matt. 28:2-3). Another angel was close by (Luke 24:4). Seasoned soldier guards weren't prepared for such an act of God and ran away (Matt. 28:2-4).

Following this, according to John 20, Mary Magdalene arrived to find Jesus' empty tomb. She went and told the disciples Jesus' body was missing. Simon Peter and John went to the now empty tomb. Simon Peter and John left. Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb and saw two angels and Jesus himself. She then went to tell the disciples she had seen Jesus.

He has risen, he has risen indeed! Near the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had promised that he would rise from the dead (John 2:19). It was now proven that Jesus' words became fact. Evidence of this historical fact exists. Jesus appeared to three women at the tomb (Matt. 28:9-10) and then alone to Mary Magdalene (John 20:14-18). Next, he appeared to two disciples on Emmaus road (Luke 24:13), and then to ten of the apostles (John 20:19-25), and after that to all eleven of them (John 20:26-29). He said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe" (John 20:27). Jesus still had his wounds from the crucifixion. This was the real Jesus resurrected from the dead. He was seen by several disciples fishing (John 21:l) and also by Peter (1 Cor. 15:5). He was seen by over 500 brethren – not counting the woman and children – at once (1 Cor. 15:6). And James, the Lord's brother saw him too (1 Cor. 15:7). Just prior to his ascension into heaven eleven apostles saw him (Matt. 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; Acts 1). In due time, Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus also saw him (Acts 9:1 Cor. 15:8).

Jesus rose from the dead. He lives today.

For Christians as they celebrate Easter, there is sadness mixed with joy. Sadness because genuine Christians realize that their very sin placed Jesus upon the cross. Joy because the Son of the living God rose from the dead. Because of Jesus and the events surrounding him, sins are forgiven. Everyone can know with certainty that God made this Jesus who was crucified both Lord and Christ (cf. Acts 2:36).

Let's celebrate Easter every day by living a resurrected life before our Lord.

Related Topics

We Believe in God
We Believe in Jesus
We Believe In The Holy Spirit

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).