Vol. 5, No. 6
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It is a leading fact of the Gospel "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3). The death of Jesus Christ is an astonishing event productive of so many marvelous consequences. It cannot be too reverently pondered or too closely examined.
Millions of men have died, but only one Christ has died. All men who have passed into "the valley of the shadow of death" have done so because of sin (Romans 5:12). Christ alone has died for sin (1 Peter 2:24).
The death of Jesus Christ upon the cross is not appreciated alike by all. To the world, it is mere foolishness. Paul wrote, "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18). Paul named the unbelievers: "For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom" (1 Corinthians 1:22). To the children of God, however, the message of the crucifixion of Christ is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). The crucified Christ constitutes the center of our preaching: "but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:23).
The evangelists give us their respective accounts of the crucifixion in Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23 and John 19. We are certainly impressed with the brevity of the crucifixion accounts. What restraint the inspired writers must have exercised as they put pen to paper to describe history's most important death. For our consideration, we have these words from the beloved physician, "And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left" (Luke 23:33). Please note the expression, "there they crucified Him." Although brief, these words are very descriptive. This we shall reveal as we examine each word for their bearing upon the subject.
The name of the place where they crucified Christ was, in the Hebrew language, Golgotha, meaning, "Place of a Skull" (Matthew 27:33). The Greek form is kranion, denoting a skull. Our word is Calvary,from the Latin, calvaria (Luke 23:33). It is a rock ledge about 30 feet high bearing a striking resemblance to a human skull.
It was a conspicuous place. It was near the city of Jerusalem (John 19:20). It was also close to a busy thoroughfare into and out of the city, allowing passers-by to observe (Matthew 27:39).
It was an appropriate place, being outside the gates of Jerusalem. The reason it was appropriate is because sin offerings of the Mosaic dispensation were made "outside the camp" (Exodus 29:14). Like the sacrificial victim, Jesus suffered "outside the gate" (Hebrews 13:11-12).
The word "they" includes all that had a part in the crucifixion of Christ. This would include the Jews. They did not do the actual deed, but it was done to please them. They were murderers in heart, but not in deed. The blood, however, was on their wicked hands! (Acts 2:23). Also in the line-up were Judas Iscariot, Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod. And actually carrying out the cruel deed were the Roman soldiers, led by a centurion.
In a sense, "they" includes all of us. It was human sin that nailed Jesus to the cross. John said, "And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world" (1 John 2:2). Let it be clarified, however, that we do not crucify him like they did unless we crucify him "afresh." This we do by apostasy from the faith (Hebrews 6:6).
Death by crucifixion was not a custom of the Jews, but was a Roman mode of punishment. The "extreme punishment" enters Hellenic history at about the time of Alexander the Great, who borrowed it from the Persians. The Romans adopted it from the example of Carthage, where it was frequently employed. Rome, during times of war, crucified deserters, thieves and conquered rebels. In peacetime, it was the punishment meted out frequently to slaves.
Crucifixion was above all things, a painful and humiliating form of execution. There was the preliminary scourging (Matthew 27:26). This was routinely done. In Hebrew law, the number of strokes was limited to forty. The Pharisees reduced it to thirty-nine in the interest of not exceeding the law.
The victim was made to carry his own cross to the place of execution (John 19:17). What was the cross? The Bible refers to it as a "tree" (Acts 5:30) and a "cross" (Philippians 2:8). We envision an object in the shape of a t; solidly constructed of nicely smoothed and squared pieces of wood. If asked whether Scripture is responsible for presenting such an image we would have to answer "no."
History has portrayed the Lord carrying a full cross on one shoulder with the post end dragging the ground. This is very likely an incorrect portrayal. Archaeology has revealed that the cross consisted of two pieces of wood. The stipes was a vertical pole permanently fixed into the ground at the place of execution [probably a humilis, a low cross of about seven feet high]. The patibulum was a horizontal beam affixed to the top of the stipes. Hollowing out a mortise in the middle of the patibulum, and fining down the top of the stipes so as to form a tenon probably did this.
Actually, what was carried was the upper beam, the patibulum. If one doubts this because the word cross suggests intersecting beams, he should keep in mind that the Greek word for cross (stauros) "denotes, primarily, an upright pale or stake" (W. E. Vine, Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Vol. 1, p. 256).This distinguished it from the cross-beam form of the cross which it later came to be.
After having been scourged, the beam was placed behind the condemned man's neck, then, strapped to his chest, outstretched arms and hands. Jesus made reference to this procedure to be used on Peter in John 21:18-19. The single beam would have weighed about 110 lbs. The entire cross likely weighed about 220 lbs. It would have required great effort to carry only the patibulum. The Gospel accounts are silent as to how it was actually done. It is possible, however, that the patibulum rested on Jesus' shoulders, unbound by cords. There would seem to be no valid reason for binding Simon of Cyrene, a free man, who had simply been compelled to carry the Lord's cross (Luke 23:26). So-called "Christian" iconography has given us quite a different picture through the ages.
The Romans used two methods of crucifixion. One involved the use of nails and the other ropes, but they were used separately. We know that Jesus was nailed to the cross (Psalm 22:16; John 20:25). It is likely that Jesus was nailed to the patibulum on the ground. He was then placed with his back to the stipes and then lifted so that the crossbeam could be fixed to the stake. His legs may have been drawn up so that his knees protruded and his feet were nailed either separately with two nails or one above the other with a single nail.
Again, "Christian" iconography depicts the thieves as tied to their crosses while Jesus is nailed to his. Why? This may be attributed to Tertullian (150-220? AD) who believed that Christ alone was crucified in this fashion. Art has since then embedded this image into our heads, whether correct or not. The Bible is silent on the matter.
The one on this cross was not just another criminal, nor was he just a man. He was the Christ! Jesus Christ, the suffering one (Isaiah 53; Acts 8:35). Jesus Christ, the innocent one (Matthew 27:4). Jesus Christ, the just one (Matthew 27:19, 24). Jesus Christ, the reviled one (1 Peter 2:22). Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Matthew 27:54).
The crucifixion of Christ is the greatest demonstration of the love of God for man (Romans 5:8). What else would cause the Lord to submit to what Cicero called "the most cruel and hideous of punishments"? It can only be divine love for sinful man. Oh, the cost of sin! Oh, the price of the church! Oh, the power of love!