The cross was not jewellery – it was an obscenity. 2000 years ago if someone carved up your chariot on the road to Milan, you’d not stick two fingers or one finger or any other creative hand gesture. You’d make the sign of the cross in their direction. What starts and finishes many people’s prayers, began with an obscenity.
It was devised to be the most terrible and humiliating way to die, so that to say your leader went to a cross was the worst possible way to start a movement. It was foolishness to the Greeks and anathema to the Jews to say, ‘Our guy was crucified, come and join us.’ We cannot imagine the ‘Yuk’ factor that would bring to the common mind of the Roman empire which applauded the strength and might of its heroes.
Crucifixion was invented by the Phoenicians but perfected by the Romans and intended to be the most stigmatising (it has links to what we get the word stigmatising from), debasing and humiliating and agonizing experience. The idea was that NOBODY would ever want to be associated with anyone who died on a cross. There were lots of pretended Messiahs around at the time, but after the cross – nobody bothered to talk about any of them.
The cross, crossed people out. They didn’t matter anymore.
It was a death that deliberately stripped all dignity. You were belittled. That means you were being, littled.
After the death sentence was passed, the condemned person was stripped and paraded naked through the streets of the city, so that his punishment would be seen by all. The Jewish Law required that executions be made outside the city walls and the Romans accommodated this custom with criminals prominently put to death on a hill outside of Jerusalem. They wanted executions near well-travelled roads so all could see what became of any who were not a friend of Caesar.
You probably know how they had beaten this carpenter turned preacher, Jesus of Nazareth. They flogged him with a whip laced with bone or lead to flay off the skin and bare the internals – they stuck his back together with a rough purple horse blanket and mocked him as they placed a crown of thorns upon his head and beat it into place with a stick. When they were finally tired of scorning him, they ripped off the ‘robe’ and put his own clothes on him again. Then they led him away to be crucified.
Literary sources detailing the history indicate that the condemned person would carry to the execution site only the heavy crossbar (stipes). Wood was scarce and the vertical pole (patibulum) was kept stationary and used repeatedly. As he stumbled toward his execution the soldiers would follow closely behind, whipping him along the way.
When they arrived at the place of execution, the criminal would be both nailed and tied by rope to the cross beam. Recent archaeology indicates nails only 4.5 inches long would be used, in fact re-examination of a famous crucifixion victim may indicate that just one nail driven through one heel bone would suffice to keep a man on a cross if he were then tied with ropes. We know that Jesus’ hands were pierced but still this carpenter would be worth less than the nails and the wood – they often didn’t want to use too many nails or ruin the wood with nail marks too quickly so would often use a rope to hold the upper body. The victim would slowly die of asphyxiation just the same.
The position made it progressively difficult to exhale. The word excruciating was coined from this terrible pain. His legs were bent and his feet or heels nailed near the base of the cross—so he could push his torso a few inches and gasp for breath, until the pain in his legs became unbearable and he collapsed again.
It was not uncommon for death to take two days. Whenever the authorities decided (for whatever reason) to expedite the criminal’s death, his legs would be broken so that he could no longer push himself up for breath, and he would suffocate within a matter of minutes. Jesus died before that happened to him.
Unlike medieval art depictions, the cross didn’t tower high above the crowd. The dying would experience the torment of dangling just above the ground, at eye level, so tormentors could easily spit in his face, or set the dogs on them. The word crucify literally means ‘impale on a plank.’ Throughout the history of the Roman Empire, untold thousands were executed in this fashion. In AD70 after a rebellion they crucified so many they ran out of wood and just nailed them to the walls. We only remember one cross.
But Jesus’ cross was inconsequential. The sign above his head ‘King of the Jews’ – a bitter irony. He was nothing. Crossed out. As Jesus hung there naked, beaten and bloody, they taunted him, even the thieves he was crucified together with mocked him; his enemies watching him die helpless as the soldiers gambled for his clothes alone must have made his claim seem laughable.
Leading religious figures applauded, saying, “Let this Messiah come down off the cross so that we can see it and believe in him.”
And his friends – those who had believed in him – their worlds were spinning out right of control, and everything going wrong… they’re asking ‘WHAT IS GOING ON?!’’
What was going on? The Bible tells us what at the time only heaven could see, in Philippians 2:
When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honour of God the Father.
Jesus Christ hung there – because everything hung on it.
He was there, not as the victim of circumstances beyond his control, but because he chose to lay down his life for the sake of the world. As he had said to his friends in so many ways as he predicted the detail of what would happen: I am the good shepherd….No one can take my life from me. I lay down my life voluntarily. I have the power to lay it down when I want to and also the power to take it again. (John 10)
As Jesus was arrested, he said to his disciples, “Don’t you realise that I am able right now to call to my Father, and twelve companies—more, if I want them—of fighting angels would be here, battle-ready? But if I did that, how would the Scriptures come true that say this is the way it has to be?” (Matthew 26:53)
He was saying ‘I could save myself ANY time, but if I did, how could YOU be saved?’
Jesus could have saved himself, any minute of that long Good Friday. But He could not save himself, because He wanted to save – you. Saving us, forgiving all our sins and giving us eternal life meant that he had to die on the cross to pay the price for your sins. It was not that HE was crossed out, but our sins were crossed out, forever.
And he was willing to do whatever it took, for that to happen. For the glory of his Father, and because he thinks we were worth it.
Jesus’ death on the cross is the only one that is remembered, the death symbol that brings life – because that’s what it took to bring about our reconciliation, and that was a price he was willing to pay. In the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prayed, “If it is possible, take this cup from me” — but it was not possible. That cup could not be taken away… someone had to drink it. Him or us…
He did what it took. He took what it took. Despite all the power available to the Son of God, the King of kings, he knew he couldn’t save himself, because he wanted to save me and you.
(This is part of my notes from our Good Friday service yesterday – the talk in full will be available soon as a free podcast at www.ivymanchester.org/podcasts)