Vol. 8, No. 4
~ Page 5 ~
In this series of articles with the theme of "Come Meet Jesus," we have already turned to Scripture about Jesus Christ as Creator, Jesus Christ the Incarnate God and Jesus Christ the Master Teacher. Herein, let us "Come Meet Jesus at the Cross."
Crucifixion was a horrific form of capital punishment. Various forms of crucifixion were used by different nations throughout ancient history. Crucifixion at times and places ranged from a single post on which a person was impaled, to an upright post with a crossbar, to two rails forming an "X." Most ancient nations practiced some form of crucifixion (e.g., Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Egyptians, Scythians, Indians, Germans, Persians and Assyrians (Varner 5).
The Roman Empire also employed crucifixion as a form of capital punishment. The Roman cross was comprised of an upright post of up to 9' above the ground with a 7' crossbeam (Hastings qtd. in Varner 4). Protruding from the upright post was a "peg" (New Unger's) or "a small piece of wood forming a…seat …designed to bear part of the weight of the body which would otherwise have been too great to be supported by the hands and feet alone. At the top of [the upright post] was a small tablet…which declared the crime and name of the victim" (Varner 4). The tablet above Jesus' head on the cross read, "Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews" (John 19:19; Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38).
The horribleness of crucifixion was intended to intimidate populations so they would be sure to practice civil obedience. Crimes punishable by crucifixion included piracy, assassination, perjury and treason (Varner 6). The Roman Empire ruled the conquered lands annexed to itself not through integration, but solely through abject, iron-fisted and brutish control. Crucifixion was simply a part of that system of complete mastery.
The first step in the process of crucifixion was scourging; "...scourging was the terrible introduction to crucifixion--'the intermediate death'" (Edersheim emphasis added). The victim was stripped and tied by his wrists to a short post, exposing his arched back to his tormenter. A whip consisting of a handle to which were attached several leather cords with pieces of bone and nails affixed to their ends relentlessly flogged the criminal until his flesh was tattered, exposing muscles, bones and perhaps entrails. "[S]even out of ten men died, literally beaten to death" (Varner 9). Prophetic Scripture about the scourging of the Messiah indicates the severity of it tore the flesh of our Lord into deep furrows (Psalm 35:15; 129:3; Isaiah 50:6).
After the scourging, the victim was forced to carry at least part of his cross to the crucifixion site. Crucifixion sites were outside cities on a prominent hill and near a popular highway (Hebrews 13:12). The tablet identifying the criminal and his crime was carried by a herald ahead of the victim (Varner 9).
The criminal was either tied to or nailed to a wooden cross. "Arrived at the place of execution, the sufferer was stripped naked..." (McClintock and Strong). Nails were driven through the wrists into the crossbeam versus the hands to help prevent one's flesh from tearing away from the nails under the weight of the body. The feet were either nailed with two nails to the upright post or using one nail through both ankles atop each other (Nelson's). "The cross was then driven into the ground, so that the feet of the condemned were a foot or two above the earth (in pictures of the crucifixion the cross generally much too large and high)..." (McClintock and Strong). The combination of massive wounds from scourging and new wounds from the nails of crucifixion left one's whole body a severely wounded, putrefied sore (Isaiah 1:6). Usually victims of Roman crucifixion lingered in slow, excruciating death over the next 36 hours, but some crucified persons barely held on to life for three days, and occasionally longer ("nine days," New Unger's)--depending upon physical conditioning and variables such as the extent of scourging.
The suffering of death by crucifixion was intense, especially in hot climates. Severe local inflammation, coupled with an insignificant bleeding of the jagged wounds, produced traumatic fever, which was aggravated [by] the exposure to the heat of the sun, the strained (sic) of the body and insufferable thirst. The swelled [flesh] about the rough nails and the torn lacerated tendons and nerves caused excruciating agony. The arteries of the head and stomach were surcharged with blood [i.e., due to improper circulation] and a terrific throbbing headache ensued. The mind was confused and filled with anxiety and dread foreboding. The victim of crucifixion literally died a thousand deaths. Tetanus not rarely supervened and the rigors of the attending convulsions would tear at the wounds and add to the burden of pain, till at last the bodily forces were exhausted and the victim sank to unconsciousness and death. The sufferings were so frightful that "even among the raging passions of war pity was sometimes excited" (BJ, V, xi, 1). (ISBE emphasis added)
The one to be crucified was stripped naked of all his clothes, and then followed the most awful moment of all. He was laid down upon the implement of torture. His arms were stretched along the cross-beams, and at the centre of the open palms the point of a huge iron nail was placed, which, by the blow of a mallet, was driven home into the wood. Then through either foot separately, or possibly through both together, as they were placed one over the other, another huge nail tore its way through the quivering flesh. …to prevent the hands and feet being torn away by the weight of the body, which could not "rest upon nothing but four great wounds," there was, about the centre of the cross, a wooden projection strong enough to support, at least in part, a human body, which soon became a weight of agony. Then the "accursed tree" with its living human burden was slowly heaved up and the end fixed firmly in a hole in the ground. The feet were but a little raised above the earth. The victim was in full reach of every hand that might choose to strike. A death by crucifixion seems to include all that pain and death can have of the horrible and ghastly,--dizziness, cramp, thirst, starvation, sleeplessness, traumatic fever, tetanus, publicity of shame, long continuance of torment, horror of anticipation, mortification of untended wounds, all intensified just up to the point at which they can be endured at all, but all stopping just short of the point which would give to the sufferer the relief of unconsciousness. The unnatural position made every movement painful; the lacerated veins and crushed tendons throbbed with incessant anguish; the wounds, inflamed by exposure, gradually gangrened; the arteries, especially of the head and stomach, became swollen and oppressed with surcharged blood; and, while each variety of misery went on gradually increasing, there was added to them the intolerable pang of a burning and raging thirst. Such was the death to which Christ was doomed. (qtd. in Smith's)
Customarily, four soldiers and a centurion stood guard at a crucifixion to prevent rescue of the victim (John 19:23; Matthew 27:54). The Romans allowed in Israel some variance to the usual procedure for crucifixion. Outside of Israel, victims of crucifixion were left to rot on their crosses, and their bodies were ravaged by scavenger birds and dogs. The Law of Moses forbade the hanging of a body on a tree overnight, which rule was applied likewise to crucifixions on crosses (Deuteronomy 21:22-23; Acts 5:30; 10:39; Galatians 3:13). The Romans permitted the breaking of the leg bones of persons being crucified to hasten their deaths so their bodies could be removed from the crosses before end of day (John 19:31-34).
Jesus did not just die for you and me, he voluntarily submitted to the most horrible of physical deaths so that we could live spiritually. "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed" (1 Peter 2:24).
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ upon the cross of Calvary has fundamental significance to Christianity. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross was not a surprise. Old Testament prophecy foretold that the Messiah would humble himself to such a death (scourging and crucifixion) (Psalm 22:16-18; 69:21; Isaiah 53:1-12). Jesus, himself, foretold that he would suffer crucifixion on the Roman cross (Matthew 10:38; Luke 14:27).
…[T]he time of our Saviour's crucifixion is recorded by Mark to be "the third hour;" that is, the whole space from nine o'clock to twelve was not quite gone, though it was near at an end; and by the evangelist here it is said, that it was "about the sixth hour," that is, near our twelve o'clock. (John 19:14) (Poole)
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ was the culmination of his earthly ministry to save the world from its sins (John 3:16-17; 1 John 3:16). The Christian's imitation of the crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of Christ leads to salvation (Galatians 2:20; 6:14; Romans 6:3-13). By means of the cross, Jesus Christ made reconciliation of humanity (Jew and Gentile) to an infinitely holy God possible (Ephesians 2:16; Colossians 1:20).
Other factors directly relating to Christianity have to do with the cross of Christ. Through the cross of Christ, the Old Testament was replaced with the New Testament (Colossians 2:14). Through the crucifixion, Jesus Christ became the antitype of the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:46; John 19:33, 36).
In addition, imagine for a moment the shame or curse of being hanged on a tree that Jesus Christ suffered in our stead. Under Judaism, hanging a dead body on a tree was a signboard of disgrace and shame (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Jesus Christ, the Holy Son of God, suffered disgrace and shame that rightly belongs to you and me (Galatians3:13). The ignoble or humiliating death of Jesus Christ on the cross for many in the first century was a stumbling block to belief, but Christians turned the awful death of Jesus Christ into a glorious memorial to salvation through Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). The shame of the cross suffered for us by Jesus resulted in his coronation as King Jesus, King of our lives (Hebrews 12:2).
However, many have made themselves enemies of the cross, including both non-Christians and erring Christians (Philippians 3:18). Especially Christians need to be careful that they do not make the "cross of Christ" of "none effect" by substituting human wisdom in place of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1:17). There are many today also who are offended by the cross of Christ (Galatians 5:11).
Jesus Christ humbled himself by laying aside for awhile the glory due Deity in heaven to die as a sacrifice for sinful mankind--you and me (Philippians 2:7-8; 2 Corinthians 5:21). "But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross."
The death of Jesus Christ on the cross is meaningless to you and me, unless it has a positive effect on our lives. Jesus Christ left the glorious domain of heaven to be a suffering Savior for humanity (John 3:17). Unless we take advantage of the Gospel of Christ, our Lord's leaving heaven and his vicarious sacrifice on the cross of Calvary were pointless (Romans 1:16; Hebrews 5:9). Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost, but we must cooperate with God (Luke 19:10; Philippians 2:12).
The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is severely discounted whenever anyone, and especially Christians, fail to practice Christianity in their every waking moments. Jesus is not the Lord of those who neglect or refuse to do his bidding (Luke 6:46; Matthew 7:21). Mankind, and especially Christians, are obligated to think good things and do good things (Philippians 4:8; Titus 2:12). Christians are obligated to worship God at least weekly in his own appointed way (Hebrews 10:25; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). Christians must evangelize the world with the Gospel, edify themselves with the Word of God and extend benevolence to Christians and non-Christians when they can (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 2:2; Galatians 6:10). Christians must be zealous of good works (Titus 2:14; James 2:18).
Think about how our Lord was affixed to the cross of Calvary. Literally, of course, iron nails driven through his flesh into a rough wooden beam fastened Jesus to the cross. However, Jesus had the power himself to come down from the cross, or to call legions of angels to free him and destroy this world (Matthew 27:40, 42; 26:53). Essentially, though, not the nails, but your sins and mine held our Lord tightly to the old rugged cross of Calvary. Every sin you and I commit is one more nail attempting to crucify Jesus Christ again (Hebrews 6:6). A form of the Greek word for "cross" or "crucifixion," a compound word meaning "again" and "crucify," appears in Hebrews 6:6 to describe apostate Christians who were "virtually guilty of crucifying Christ again" (Vine).
In conclusion, note these points: "To the Romans, the cross never had any symbolical meaning being regarded as a means of punishment and execution. With the spread of Christianity, the cross subsequently acquired momentous historical, theological and legal symbolism..." (Varner 12). In a sense in its rudimentary form, crucifixion on a cross was comparable to execution by guillotine, the gallows, drawing and quartering, firing squad, the electric chair or lethal injection. Everything about being crucified was calculated to cause enormous shame for the victim as well as his family and associates, besides the horror of that death. However, for the child of God, the cross is the emblem of victory through Jesus Christ, our Savior.
Is Jesus Christ your Savior today? Jesus is not your Savior today if you are a Christian whose sins are nailing Jesus Christ to the cross again (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9). Jesus Christ is not your Savior today if you have never obeyed the Gospel by crucifying the old man of sin and by being buried by baptism into the death of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3-6).
Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. CD-ROM. Escondido: Ephesians Four Group, n.d.
International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (ISBE). CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1996.
McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2000.
Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Nashville: Nelson, 1986.
New Unger's Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Chicago: Moody P., 1988.
Poole, Matthew. "John 19:14." Matthew Poole's Commentary on the New Testament. CD-ROM. Escondido: Ephesians Four Group, 1997.
Smith, William. Smith's Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Austin: Wordsearch, 2003.
Varner, W. Terry. Origin and Use of the Cross. Marietta: Therefore Stand Publications, 1999.
Vine, W. E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. CD-ROM. Grand Rapids: Revell, 1981.