Jesus was on the cross for about six hours. “The chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God”’” (Matthew 27:41–43). Crucifixion was a method the ancient Roman Empire used to carry out the death penalty for those found guilty of a capital offense. Crucifixion was usually reserved for slaves, foreigners, insurrectionists, and those guilty of the vilest crimes.
The Jewish theocrats, in order to eliminate Jesus and maintain their power, devised a plan to convince Roman authorities that Jesus must be killed (Mark 14:1; cf. John 19:12; 19:15). The Jewish leaders accused Christ of encouraging rebellion and proclaiming Himself as King. This charge of insurrection is how Jesus ended up on a Roman cross rather than being stoned to death, the ancient Jewish method of execution.
Crucifixion was designed not only to kill but to dissuade others from criminal actions. Victims of crucifixion were to be humiliated, often left to hang completely naked. The cross carried a stigma, and Jewish Law said it brought a curse (Galatians 3:13; 5:11). The term excruciating literally means “out of crucifying”; crucifixion was an “excruciating” way to die because it was a very slow and painful means to death. Depending on the circumstance, some people could live for days after being nailed to a cross.
Answering the question of how long Jesus was on the cross is complicated by the fact that two systems of marking time are used in the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke use the Jewish system of marking time. John uses the Roman system. Using the Jewish system, Mark says, “They crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him” (Mark 15:24–25, ESV). According to this, Christ’s crucifixion began at 9:00 A.M.
Also using the Jewish system of marking time, Matthew says that “from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour” (Matthew 27:45, ESV). That is, the darkness lasted from 12:00 noon to 3:00 P.M. This was Jesus’ final three hours on the cross. At the end of that time, “when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). After that a Roman soldier made sure of His death (John 19:34), and Jesus’ body was taken down. Jesus had been on the cross from approximately 9:00 A.M. until 3:00 P.M., a total of six hours.
John adds the detail that Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate was taking place, according to Roman time, “about the sixth hour” (John 19:14, ESV). Since the Romans started counting their hours at midnight, the “sixth hour” would start at 6:00 A.M.
So, using the Roman system:
“about the sixth hour” = about 6:00 A.M. Jesus is sentenced by Pilate.
Then, using the Jewish system:
“the third hour” = 9:00 A.M. The crucifixion begins.
“the sixth hour” = 12:00 P.M. (noon). Darkness begins.
“the ninth hour” = 3:00 P.M. Jesus dies.
Putting it all together, Jesus’ trial ended about 6:00 A.M. His crucifixion began about three hours later, and He died about six hours after that.