On Good Friday, we Christians particularly recall the bittersweet death of the Spotless Victim, Jesus Who is without sin. We reflect on His sufferings and His death and, depending on which Gospel you read, you hear about different aspects of how Jesus dies. Each writer puts His death a certain way, looks at it from a unique perspective, or adds details not given in the other accounts. These details can carry with them theological significance.
Matthew and John tell us Jesus gave up His spirit (Matthew 27:50; John 19:30), and Mark in his Gospel tells us when He “breathed his last” (Mark 15:37). And Luke goes all in and recounts how Jesus offers up His spirit to the Father and then “breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).
What most of the Gospel writers try to convey is the idea that Jesus hands Himself over to His Father in the end, thereby bringing His mortal life to an end. This communicates two further points: a) Jesus's divine identity, and b) the need for us to follow Christ's example.
Jesus stating aloud (as He does in Luke) that He places His spirit into the Father's hands tells us that Jesus directs exactly when He will die. Granted He is a Victim, but – being God – He is in full control of the situation. His pain and suffering aren't over until He decides they are. This giving up of His spirit shows us the extent of His control over life and death; it shows that He is God.
It also shows total trust. Jesus knows the Father, that He is all good and all loving, and so He commends Himself to the fate of death, the fate of every mortal man and woman. He is obedient to death. Just as the Good Teacher has shown upon His own Cross, we are likewise called to a daily self-denial; we're called to continually place ourselves totally, and with utter faith, in the hands of God the Father. Jesus knows this won't be easy, but neither then were His Passion and death. He knows we will stumble and fall short, and repeatedly so. Thus, He has gone first to show us that a human being – with the grace of God – can achieve this self-offering despite the odds.
Now, in returning to Mark's account, it's interesting to note that he specifically highlights Jesus breathing His last. It's also the exclusive signifier of Jesus's death (which is not the case in Luke as discussed above). Mark even mentions the fact twice (see Mark 15 verses 37 and 39). He could've simply said, Then He died. Instead, the writer wants to be specific.
For one, recording the fact that Jesus stopped breathing might allude to what often occurred to the human body during this type of execution. Blood loss is only one aspect of crucifixion. But according to some scholars such as physiologist Jeremy Ward, asphyxiation could be a potential factor.* It could also be more or less severe depending on the type of crucifixion, especially as concerns the placement of the arms. (Recall that the modes of crucifixion for some of Christ's Apostles like Peter and Andrew differed from the way His Crucifixion is oft depicted.) For instance, one form of this execution placed the arms directly over the head. In such a position, the activity of breathing would be even more strained.
Upon the Cross, Jesus could have experienced shortness of breath. Breathing, a crucial part to remaining alive while hanging from the Tree, may have become laborious. If Jesus experienced asphyxiation, his body would have heaved to get each gasp of breath – for three hours.
In one sense, the detail provided by Mark can be seen to illustrate more deeply an inherent dimension to Jesus's excruciating death. But speaking of Christ's breath more clearly points, yet again, to His divine nature.
In Sacred Scripture, the breath of God (or of Jesus) is an image for the Spirit of God. Post-Resurrection, Jesus appears to His Apostles in His glorified Body and shares with them the Holy Spirit:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21-22).
Here Jesus reveals the Holy Spirit by name to His Apostles and, furthermore, gifts the Paraclete to them by breathing upon them. Thus, the fledgling Church is given new life in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Similarly, at the birth of mankind, God blew life into the nostrils of Adam. We read, “...then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
This “breath of life” is the spirit from God instilled in man. It is a gift from God to humanity, to each of us. Jesus, being both God and man, had within Him both the Spirit of God and the spirit, “the breath of life,” that God gifts to men and women.
The story of salvation is ultimately one of tragedy and triumph, and both these elements come to a head on the Cross. In Jesus's death, we see the heights of God's poetry with its tones of bittersweet irony.
In the beginning, God created man. And through God's free will and action, He bestowed the breath of life to man, the creature fashioned in the imago Dei. Man sinned. To save human beings from sin, God entered the world as one of them. God was found human in appearance. To save us, He allowed His people, whom He created, to be the death of Him. Through man's free will and action, Jesus had the breath of life knocked out of Him. Jesus who had breathed the first breath of life into man's nostrils, now breathed His last in order to secure for us new life. It was finished.
After that, Jesus would lie dead for three days. But the breath of life would return – and it had to be shared. And that is what love looks like.
*For a contrary stance and further historical analysis on this view of crucifixion, please compare the research of Frederick T. Zugbie, The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry (M. Evans, 2005).