Why the Cross? (Part 1)

The Way Jesus Saw the Cross
     After two thousand years the cross means something different to us than it did then. The cross, then, sent chills down your spine. It would be common if you saw a cross you would quickly look away. What you saw would probably turn your stomach. It would affront and traumatize your senses. A cross meant one thing – crucifixion. Crucifixion was a torturous form of execution, perhaps the worst. There is a simple reason for this conclusion. To be hung, beheaded, poisoned, or strangled meant a fairly quick and therefore merciful death. But this was not the case with crucifixion. Crucifixion was tortuous agony for the condemned taking often days to die. Crucifixion deliberately delayed death to maximize the torture inflicted.1

The Romans and the Cross
     The Romans had taken over the crucifixion. It had not originated with them. Perhaps it was the Phoenicians in the Punic Wars,2 or perhaps they may have taken it from the North African Carthaginians,3 but it was the Romans who mastered it. It was their terror-tactic to strike fear into the hearts of the peoples they conquered. It was reserved for slaves, foreigners, or other non-persons in the Roman estimation. It was inflicted upon those convicted of murder, rebellion, or armed robbery provided they were not Romans. Cicero, a Roman attorney, in his successful defense of a Roman senator tried for murder said, “the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things or the endurance of them, but liability to them, the expectation, indeed the mere mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.”4 Rome used crucifixion as a punitive weapon, as a deterrent to any resistance to their occupation. Crucifixion was always done in an open place, so the populace saw first hand what resistance to Rome would mean – a slow agonizing, humiliating, pathetic death. Often even after death crucified bodies were left hanging as carrion for crows, so for days and weeks to come a crucifixion would offend and traumatize both sight and smell of by-passers.5

     The Romans had perfected crucifixion to a science. After conviction, the condemned carried either the whole cross (crux immissa, †) or the cross-member (patibulum of the crux comissa, T)6 from the place of sentencing to the place of execution. This was the “bearing of the cross.”7 Then at the place of execution they were stripped naked and scourged (in addition to any previous scourging). The Roman “cat-of-nine-tails” had tips inset with pieces of metal, and the wounds and suffering it inflicted were so severe that such a scourging was murderous sometimes ending in death by itself. Its intent was to weaken and wound the condemned before the crucifixion.8 Next, the condemned was tied or nailed to the cross member of the cross. If the cross member was attached to its upright (crux inmissa), it was dropped into its hole. If the upright was already planted in the ground, then the cross member with its victim was hoisted to the top of the upright and attached. “Death came slowly after extraordinary agony; probably through exhaustion or suffocation.”9

The Cross Was a Torturous Death
     Crucifixion was so gruesome and heinous, so disgraceful and cruel, that secular writers avoided giving any detailed description of it. What facts we know have been pieced together from a variety of sources.10 In 1968 an archaeological find added a great wealth of information with the find of the skeleton of a man in his mid-twenties who had been crucified outside of Jerusalem between 7–66 A. D. His name Jehohanan. His outstretched arms had been nailed to the crossbeam through the forearms. His legs had been “pressed together, bent, and twisted so that the calves were parallel to the [cross member]. The feet were secured to the cross by one iron nail driven simultaneously through both heels” with the right foot on top of the left.11

     His legs had been broken, presumably after sometime on the cross to speed his death. It is also presumed that because of the twisted position of his legs that a seat or plank (sedcula) had been nailed to the upright.12 “This offered support to the crucified man, and often prolonged his life. By raising himself up on his lacerated feet and the saddle he could give some respite to heart and lungs which were put under immense strain by the position of crucifixion. When the torture was deemed to have gone on long enough. . .the soldiers would perform the cruritragium or the breaking of the legs. This meant that the man, if still alive, could no longer hoist himself and would soon expire.”13

     Death by crucifixion came slowly, very, very slowly, by design. For this reason Pilate was surprised that Jesus had died so quickly after only six hours on the cross (Mk. 15:44; cf. Jn. 19:32, 33). From a medical perspective it can be speculated as to how death came,

The suspension of the whole body on jagged iron nails...driven through the most sensitive nerve centres of the wrists and ankles, ensured constant exquisite torture. The wounds of the nails and the weals from the lash soon became inflamed and even gangrenous. The body’s position hindered circulation and caused indescribable pain in the chest. A raging thirst set in brought on by the burning sun. The flies were thick around the victim.14 His contorted muscles probably would have generated spasmodic contractions...and rigid cramps would eventually permeate the diaphragm and lungs so as to prohibit inhalation and exhalation.15

Then came death.

Jesus’ Death on the Cross
     Jesus’ death was undoubtedly hastened more quickly, than the two condemned thieves crucified with Him, for an obvious reason. Jesus’ scourging must have been brutal. Remember those who were scourged by the Romans often did not survive. The soldiers ridicule and mockery of Jesus – dressing Him in the scarlet robe, and crown of thorns, beating Him, and their mock worship – evidenced their disdain for Him (Mk. 15:16-20). Add to this that He was charged with sedition against Rome (Lu. 23:2; Jn. 19:12), and it would be expected that He would have been brutally treated by the soldiers. With reasonable grounds we can surmise that Roman soldiers stationed in Palestine generally hated Palestine and the Jews, and they would have relished the opportunity to vent their hatred upon a convicted, seditious Jew. Their treatment of Jesus would have been merciless. When they finished with Him, we know, He was too weak to carry the cross by Himself (Mk. 15:21). From these circumstances we can see is that Jesus died more quickly than the thieves and more quickly than crucifixion could take because He was undoubtedly near death when they nailed Him on the cross. Such was the extreme of His suffering before the cross.16

     The cross meant only one thing in the first century. It was used for only one purpose. The cross was an instrument of death. In the first century it would never be conceived as pretty, no matter how it was crafted or beautified. Crosses were only used to kill people. It was used to kill slowly, unmercifully, brutally, heinously, utterly humiliating the condemned, robbing them of all dignity in death. A cross inflicted an utterly vile death. A cross turned peoples’ stomachs especially after a first-hand exposure to a crucifixion. Yet, it was the cross that the Church of Jesus Christ took as its symbol. Why such a horrific symbol? There is only one reason. It is in the cross that the heart of Christianity is represented. Whatever it meant to the world was immaterial. What it meant to the Church made it central. The cross was central to Jesus Christ. To understand Jesus Christ one could not side step the horror of the cross. One had to understand the cross to understand Jesus. Without the cross the message of Jesus was eviscerated. The cross was the uncompromiseable heart of the Gospel message. Though it became odious and ludicrous in the eyes of Christianity’s critics, it was glorious in the eyes of Christ’s Church! The cross became precious to those inside the Church, but unbelievable to those standing outside the Church.

     Two theologians state this for us. The first wrote at the beginning of this century and the second wrote in the middle of this century. The first is P. T. Forsyth:

Christ is to us just what his cross is. All that Christ was in heaven or on earth was put into what he did there....Christ, I repeat, is to us just what his cross is. You do not understand Christ till you understand his cross.17

The second is Emil Brumner:

The Cross is the sign of the Christian faith, of the Christian Church, of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ....The whole struggle of the Reformation for the sola fide, the soli deo gloria, was simply the struggle for the right interpretation of the Cross. He who understands the Cross aright...understands the Bible, he understands Jesus Christ.18

     This brings us to the necessity of understanding the cross not as ornamental jewelry, decorations on a building, or statuary adorning a city. We must see the cross as a vile instrument of death, but in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross we must see it transformed into the glorious heart of the Good News, the Gospel.


[1] John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 23, 24.
[2] Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 21.
[3] E. Brandenburger, “Cross,” Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Vol. 1, (ed.) Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), 402.
[4] Stott, 24.
[5] Brandenburger, 392, 393.
[6] Green, 21, 22, describes 4 different types of crosses: 1) cruz simplex- an agonizing beam or stake (sharpened), Ú ; 2) crux commissa a crossbeam (patibulum) attached on top of the upright (stipes), T ; 3) crux inmissa – crossbeam attached 1/3 from top of upright, ; and 4) crux decussatia – 2 cris-crossed beams, X ; cf. Brandenburger, 392.
[7] Brandenburger, 392.
[8] Green, 22; also Brandenburger, 393; and especially J. H. Charlesworth, “Jesus and Jehohanan: An Archaeological Note on Crucifixion,” The Expository Times, Vol. LXXXIV, No. 5, Feb. 1973 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark), 150.
[9] Brandenburger, 392, 393.
[10] Brandenburger, 393.
[11] Charlesworth, 148.
[12] Charlesworth, 149.
[13] Green, 22, 23.
[14] Green, 23.
[15] Charlesworth, 149.
[16] Charlesworth, 150.
[17] In Stott, 43.
[18] In Stott, 44.

The Enemy of Faith (Part 3)


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Sunday, 22 April 2018

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