Crucifixion Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Crucifixion

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In the Roman Empire a cross (Greek stauros) was the favored instrument of execution for capital crimes — a broad category. The criminal would usually be beaten or whipped nearly to death ahead of time before a combination of ropes and spikes were used to affix the criminal's body onto wooden beams that would then be hoisted into the air, hanging the victim's body. Most victims died slowly as a result of fluid loss and the caving in of the pulmonary system, causing asphyxiation. Crucifixions took place in public spaces and served as a warning to all citizens not to oppose Rome or Caesar in any way. An instrument of terror, the cross was designed to keep people in line. Crucifixions were fairly common under Roman jurisdiction and only in the Christian telling of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth did a cross ever assume a positive significance.

In Scripture

Scripture: The primary concentration of biblical references to an actual cross and the event of Jesus's crucifixion come, of course, in the penultimate or closing chapters of each of the four gospels: Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19. Prior to the actual crucifixion, Jesus on several occasions taught his disciples and the crowds that they would spiritually need to take up a cross as a symbol of following Jesus down paths of humble, sacrificial service (cf. Matt. 10:38 and 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23 and 14:27). In the balance of the New Testament — in addition to those times when the apostles recounted the story of Jesus's death on a cross at the Place of the Skull/Golgotha — the cross not only symbolizes Jesus's supreme humility (cf. Phil. 2:5 - 11) but also serves as the shining example of God's surprising way of getting things done (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17 - 18). Additionally, Paul in particular used the fact that salvation could only be accomplished on a cross as a reminder that the cross spells the end to any human schemes of trying to save themselves or even of trying to contribute something to salvation (cf. Gal. 2 and 6:14; Phil. 3). A key Old Testament reference quoted by the apostle Paul in Galatians 3 comes from Deuteronomy 21:22 - 23: "When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession." The notion that there is something particularly accursed about dying by hanging or crucifixion was used in the New Testament to magnify the theological claim that Jesus bore the curse of sin that rightly belongs only to sinful humanity. God carried out every curse ever promised for sin and evil by placing the full weight of those curses on Jesus while on the accursed cross.

Points to Ponder

Theological Significance of the Cross: There are three primary ways the cross of Christ gets used in the New Testament beyond the literal instrument of execution on which Jesus died.

* First, Jesus himself pointed to the cross — even well before he found himself nailed to one — to signify that his disciples needed to live under a symbol of death. To "take up one's cross" meant to live with the horizontal crossbeam symbolically across one's shoulders. Anyone in the Roman world who literally had such a crossbeam placed there was on his way to death. For Jesus, this spiritualizing of the crossbeam pointed to the need to lead lives of humble and sacrificial service, to lay down one's life for friends and enemies alike, to take on the role of a servant in all circumstances.

* Second, as developed primarily in 1 Corinthians 1 but with echoes and small repetitions elsewhere, the cross became a symbol of the apparent folly and weakness of God's way of getting things done. No one in the ancient world saw anything positive — much less salvific — in that horribly grim thing called a cross. A cross was a literal dead end. Anyone on a cross was finished, washed up, soon to be buried and forgotten. It was the complete opposite of all things effectual and effective. No good came from a cross (unless you were a Roman authority who could wield the threat of a cross as a way to keep people under your thumb). But from the very beginning, Paul and others contend, God has had a peculiar penchant for using the apparently weak and foolish things of this world to bring saving acts to this world. Nothing shows the upside-down nature of the gospel more clearly than the fact that an old rugged cross became the gateway to life everlasting!

* Third, especially for Paul but for the other apostles too, the cross spelled the end of human striving. If a bloody cross is what it took for even God's own Son to pull of redemption, why would puny and sinful humans think for one more moment they had anything to offer to the salvific operation of God? In Philippians 3 and in Galatians 2, Paul used many dramatic rhetorical flourishes by which he demonstrates that, despite having had a lifetime of what he as a Pharisee was certain added up to a golden "Entry to Heaven" ticket, once he met the crucified Jesus Christ, he knew that his finest accomplishments were just a stinking pile of manure — skubla, to invoke the rather indelicate Greek word Paul used in Philippians 3:8. Whenever the apostles ran into false teachers who were seducing people into believing that they still had to obey the law to seal the salvation deal and so contribute to their own salvation after all, it was ever and always the cross to which they pointed as God's resounding counter-argument to all such prideful claims. Only by being obedient even to the point of accepting a shameful death upon a cross did Jesus fulfill all righteousness, pay the penalty for sin, and accomplish salvation.

The Fading Scandal of the Cross: According to the New Testament, the earliest days of the Christian church displayed a greater appreciation than in subsequent times for the shocking scandal that God somehow accomplished redemption in and through a cross, of all things. The cross as preached by the apostles was called a stumbling block to many (which is what skandalon means in Greek) and a laugh-out-loud piece of foolishness to many others. In time, however, the meaning of the cross and the reactions that resulted from seeing the symbol of the cross changed, and not always for the better. Christians became used to seeing a cross, blunting its surprising nature. By the Middle Ages, the cross on banners and flags even became a rallying cry for conquest in the post-Constantine Roman Empire and in the crusades to drive out the Muslim infidels from the Holy Land. In hoc signo vinces ("In this symbol you will conquer") became a common battle cry combined with images of cross and crown. Although all Christians affirm that the final victory over sin and death were won by Christ's death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection, the idea that the cross could be used to win victories in the forcible subjugation of peoples and nations works against how Jesus spoke of his own cross and what it was supposed to mean in terms of leading lives of humble service. Today Christians are so comfortable with seeing a cross that it is one of the more common forms of jewelry, it adorns the steeples and worship spaces of many churches, and is the subject of a host of songs and hymns. But as Neal Plantinga has pointed out, imagine what we would think if we saw a woman today wearing a necklace with an electric chair pendant. Imagine earrings in the shape of a hangman's noose or a lapel pin depicting the padded gurney used for lethal injection executions. Were we to see such things, we would have to wonder about the person adorned with such grim symbols of death. Surely in the ancient world people would have thought similar thoughts about cross earrings and pendants. Perhaps we in the church need to look for fresh ways to recall for ourselves how terrible the cross really was, how horribly Jesus suffered on it, and what it means for us yet today that this was the only way God could salvage a creation gone bad.

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.