Category Archives: The Cross
In his Are You the One Who is To Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question, Michael F. Bird brilliantly summarizes the theme of messiahship in the Gospel of Mark.
Mark’s story of Jesus essentially unpacks the designation “Jesus Christ” from the incipit (1:1) so as to show that the Messiah who Christians confess is made known as
- The Son of God, who is beloved by the Father, commissioned for his messianic mission by reception of the Spirit, and exercising command over God’s enemies, be they demons or the armies of Rome.
- The Son of Man, who is authorized to speak for God, appointed to suffer and rise from the dead, and destined to judge the inhabited world.
- The Son of David, who heals the afflicted of Israel, is greater still than David himself and ushers in David’s coming kingdom.
- The King of the Jews, who in an ironic twist, at the end of his triumph, is enthroned as the King of Israel on the cross and there reveals the true power of his kingship by refusing to save himself.
In one sense this is a fairly radical reinterpretation of messiahship, but in another sense it is also an apology [defense] for Jesus as the Messiah. The crucifixion is not thrust upon Jesus as a pure accident of unfortunate events; rather, he deliberately embraces it as part of a larger redemptive purpose. Mark’s Gospel is fundamentally an apology [defense] for a crucified Messiah, something that was pertinent theologically, sociologically, and culturally for Christians in the Greco-Roman world. In other words, Mark’s Jesus is not the Messiah despite the cross, but precisely because of it.
-Michael F. Bird, Are You the One Who is To Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question, 145. Emphasis added.
Here’s is one of N. T. Wright’s most exciting claims in his work How God Became King:
The equivalent sayings and Mark and Luke simply highlight the coming of the kingdom itself, with Mark adding “in power”:
“Some people standing here won’t experience death before they see God’s kingdom come in power.” (Mark 9:1)
“There some standing here who won’t experience death until they see God’s kingdom.” (Luke 9:27)
These parallel versus, in the intention of all three evangelists, are best read as indicating a kingdom fulfillment that day, the authors of the gospels in question, believe had already come to pass in the death and resurrection of Jesus…The best hypothesis is that all four gospel writers believed that with his crucifixion Jesus of Nazareth had indeed been enthroned, however paradoxically, as Israel’s Messiah and that, with that event, Israel’s God had established his kingdom on earth as in heaven.
They believed this, of course, because of Jesus’s resurrection…
It has often been thought the Christus Victor understanding of the atonement is incompatible with the traditional Protestant model of penal substitutionary atonement. The former teaches that in the atonement Christ defeats death and Satan, leaving Jesus the Messiah as the triumphant champion of his people. The latter teaches that on the cross Jesus took the penalty (‘penal’) of God’s wrath on behalf of his people (‘substitution’). There’s been a long history of theologians playing these two approaches off against one another, especially over the last century. In my view, this is unfortunate because both are clearly presented in Scripture and work together in tandem. Here Russell Moore shows why:
The historic Protestant understanding of the cross as essentially propitiatory and substitutionary ironically serves as the only way to make sense of the cosmic implications of both redemption and the fall since, in both, the destiny of the created order is tied to the mandate given to the human vicegerents responsible for creation. Indeed, it is the only way to make sense of the “Christus Victor” model itself. Thus, the defeat of the powers of darkness in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus means that the ancient serpent is indeed defeated, but this defeat comes through reversing human slavery to sin and death (John 8:31-47; 12:31-33; 2 Tim. 2:25; Heb. 2:14-15) by hearing the punishment due to a humanity justly accused by the satanic powers (Col. 2:14-15; Rev. 12:10-12), and thereby restoring humanity as king of the cosmos in the person of the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21-28; Heb. 2:5-18).
-Russell Moore, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective
Sinclair Ferguson ties this all together quite well:
A comprehensively biblical exposition of the work of Christ recognizes that the atonement, which terminates on God (in propitiation) and on man (in forgiveness), also terminates on Satan (in the destruction of his sway over believers). And it does this last precisely because it does the first two.
-Sinclair Ferguson, For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper, 185.
For more on the atonement, see,
Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, in their joint work The Drama of Scripture, discuss the meaning of the cross in the New Testament:
The New Testament is unique in ancient literature interpreting the crucifixion in a positive way, as the greatest of God’s actions in history. Paul proclaims that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Both he and the other New Testament writers were entirely aware that their view of this event attracts scorn. To the Romans, the cross is utter foolishness: crucifixion is merely the worst of the punishments routinely meted out to Rome ‘s enemies. They are humiliated, defeated, tortured beyond human endurance, exposed in their weakness – and then they die. Beyond that, the cross is a random act of cruelty.
Yet the early church makes the bold and fantastic claims that the cross is the central act of God in all human history! This boldness is the product of a radically different perspective because the church looks at the cross through the lens of the resurrection.
It is Jesus’ return from the dead that validates his claim to be God’s anointed Messiah. When one begins to look at the cross through the lens of the resurrection, what at first appears to be foolishness is really the wisdom of God . What seemed to be weakness is really the power of God, conquering human rebellion and Satanic evil. What appears to be humiliation is a revelation of the glory of God. God’s self-giving love, mercy, faithfulness, grace, justice, and righteousness are revealed in the event by which God accomplishes the salvation of his creation. What seems to the world to be Jesus’ defeat, the early church proclaims to be his surpassing victory over all the enemies he stand opposed to God’s good creation. This apparently meaningless act of violence and cruelty in fact reveals the full purpose of God: his judgment against sin, and his power and will to renew the creation. Seen in one way, the cross is a token of foolishness, weakness, humiliation, defeat, absurdity. Seen in another way, by those who know that Jesus is alive again from the dead, the cross is full of God’s wisdom, power, glory, victory, and the purpose.
We have seen that crucifixion, in spite of popular assumptions, was not an invention of the Roman Empire. Yet, ironically, this form of torture/execution is forever linked with the Romans. It was Rome that time after time used the cross to instill fear in the heart of its subject nations.
Christians should now be quite aware of how â€œtabooâ€ this emblem was. Actually, the cross was not a symbol for Christianity until roughly around the time of the protestant Reformation. At its inception, Christians were indeed confessing that God brought about redemption by way of a suffering servant. But the ultimate demonstration of the suffering was no mere flogging (though, of course, this was severe indeed), but by means of enduring the wrath of God himself. How did they come to know this? Scripture, though the Law-giver Moses, clearly informed them that hanging upon a tree was a sign that God’s wrath was being poured out.
The Jewish people also find significance in the cross, for while many Jews have rejected Christ as the divine Messiah, many crossed its path once too often. Under the rule of Roman authorities many Jew suffered this cruel fate. Christians should take this into account when evangelizing people of Jewish decent. While we do not want to water down the offense of the cross, we also do not want to place an unnecessary roadblock to dialogue.
Many Jews do not see the love of God revealed and the wrath of God satisfied in the symbol of the cross as Christians do. Unfortunately this symbol, so precious to the Christian, can bring many painful memories of the persecution to the Jewish people by those who thought the were advancing the cause of “Christianity.”
THE JEWISH PERSPECTIVE ON CRUCIFIXION
As mentioned earlier, to a Jewish mind crucifixion was the worst possible way to die. The stigma behind it was so great many felt it was better to kill oneself (another unacceptable sin) rather than to be crucified. The Hebrew background to this belief comes in the book of Deuteronomy were it states that anyone left to hang on a tree was under Godâ€™s curse (Deut. 21:23). This was not a belief that was taken lightly. In actuality, this was among the reasons that many Jews have rejected Christ, for how can God’s chosen method of redemption come about by way of a “Messiah” who is under His curse? Paradoxical indeed…The Jewish people also felt that it was especially atrocious if it was a Jew crucifying another Jew. This act was toavah, an abomination. In the case of the the Maccabean King, Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.E.) the Jews vilified him, for he put over 800 Pharisees to death by way of crucifixion! Josephus tells of the story in these words:
…for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes. (Antiquities 13: Chapter 13, for more click here)
The Jewish view of crucifixion was quite powerful. For a Jew to crucify another Jew was a profound theological statement. As those to whom the Old Testament revelation came, they knew that human beings were created in the image of God Himself. To crucify (i.e. hang upon a tree) was to make a strongly negative statement about the one whose image the slain bore. Indeed, many Jew suffered this fate throughout many reigns in the Roman Empire, usually for not giving up their distinct beliefs and practices.
Next, I’ll wrap up this series and give some closing thoughts…
THE ROMAN USE OF CRUCIFIXION
Today, most people commonly link crucifixion with the Roman Empire, not knowing that in fact various other groups also administered this form of execution. Yet, there is no doubt that crucifixion has forever been linked to the Roman Empire. The Roman’s used this symbol, the cross, was a deterrent for those who would rebel against its power. The Jewish historian and Roman officer Josephus Flavius mentions a number of times in his writings the cruelty with which Rome used this tool.
One well-known example of the Roman use of crucifixion was during the siege of A.D. 70. In order to pacify the ensuing crowd of Jewish rebels, and of course to instill fear to surrender, Romans officers crucified up to 500 Jews a day! Josephus states:
[B]efore they died, and were then crucified before the wall of the city. This miserable procedure made Titus greatly to pity them, while they caught every day five hundred Jews; nay, some days they caught more. So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.
Likewise, shortly after Herod‘s death in 4 B.C. several small outbreaks of revolt rose up throughout Judea. Roman legate of Syria, Varus, overtook the mobs with 2 Roman legions. The result: About 200 deaths. Josephus comments,
Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand. (Antiquities 17: Book 1)
Though much more could be said, I will allow what I have written to suffice for the time being. Next we’ll take a look at the Jewish perspective on crucifixion.
Last time we covered the method of crucifixion, now we turn to:
THE CAUSE OF DEATH
The causes of death during crucifixion are multiplied. Traditionally the cause of death is thought to be from asphyxiation, though Joe Zias says, “however the latest research findings have shown the issue to be more complicated depending upon the manner in which the victim was affixed to the cross.” Though death by asphyxiation is very possible in some cases, and quite possibly is the physical cause of death in the case of Jesus Christ (That this was most likely Jesus’ cause of death is evidenced by the blood and water that flowed from his body after the spear thrust into his abdomen. A victim of asphyxiation would develop a great buildup of cell fluid around the heart in the pericardial sack, hence when Jesus was speared the blood and “water.”), another possible cause is hypovolemic shock. This form of shock is “a condition characterized by a low blood pressure and reduced blood flow to the cell and tissues which leads to irreversible cell and organ injury and eventually death.” (Zias)
In my view, the following presentation highlights the various causes of death in crucifixion in a vivid and accurate manner:
1.The unnatural position and violent tension of the body, which caused a painful sensation from the least motion. 2. The nails, being driven through parts of the hands and feet which are full of nerves and tendons (and yet a distance from the heart), create the most exquisite anguish. 3. The exposure of so many wounds and lacerations brings inflammation, which tends to become gangrene, and every moment increases the poignancy of suffering. 4. In the distended parts of the body more bloods flows through the arteries than can be carried back into the veins: hence too much blood finds its way from the aorta into the head and stomach, and the blood-vessels of the head become pressed and swollen. The general obstruction of circulation which ensues causes an internal excitement, exertion, and anxiety more intolerable than death itself. 5. The inexpressible misery of gradually increasing and lingering anguish. To all this we may add, 6. Burning and raging thirst. (“Crucifixion,” Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature Volume II)
Further causes of death included Roman soldiers lighting fires under the victim, releasing wild dogs upon them, and crucifracture, the breaking of the victim’s legs to prevent any further attempt to sustain their life.
Picking up from where we left off regarding the method of crucifixion:
The actual process was extremely painful. It was literally beyond words to describe; they had to invent a new word: excruciating. Literally, excruciating means “out of the cross.” Typically the victim was stripped naked, to worsen the shame, and then placed on the beam. J. Julius Scott notes, “Crucifixion involved elevating the condemned upon a pole, some form of frame, or a natural tree.” The nails were anywhere between 5-9 inches in length. Though not in all cases, for it depended on time and availability of resources, the nails were driven through either the hands (if the arms were tied) or through the wrist. If through the wrist, the nail would run through and crush the median nerve, the largest in the wrist, amounting in an unbelievable amount of pain.
The manner in which the feet were fastened is hotly debated. Though most people today assume that medieval pictures of the crucifixion of Christ tell the whole story, in reality, the fixture on which Christ is portrayed is what we would refer to as a Latin cross. The Latin cross the version that it in the shape of a T with a place for the sign displaying the crime above the victim’s head. Various different forms and styles of crosses exist; and not all methods of crucifixion placed the legs in the same fashion, as we are typically used to.
Some times the victim’s ankles were not nailed together, but rather separate from one another. The only existing physical evidence for crucifixion, the man from Giv’at Ha-mivtar, was nailed in this manner as one can see from the pictures provided.
Scholars don’t all agree as to whether or not there was one “official” way to crucify. In fact, there were probably several ways in which this form of execution was done. Amongst the various ways of crucifixion, the position of the arms and legs differed. Next up, we’ll discuss the cause of death…
The message of the cross; for those who know Christ as their Lord, unfortunately this phrase can become a cliche. But we hear it so often that we’re in danger of forgetting the impact this phrase had on the first. We’ve cleaned-up the cross so much that it no longer carries the offense that Paul spoke of. But this T-shaped wooden contraption is a precious thing to the Christian. It was upon the cross that Christ, our substitute, died for the sins of His people. The power of God is revealed in the gospel, and that gospel contains the preaching of the cross. The apostle Paul himself said that he would never boast in anything except the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 6:14). Yet, today many Christians do not realize that Roman crucifixion was a common practice during the period between the Testaments and well into Jesus’ day.
As we shall see in the course of this series, crucifixion was far too common a practice in the first century. As cruel and barbaric as this form of execution was, for the average Jew or Roman, it was part of life under the pax Romana (the era of the “Roman Peace”). Though Christians now seem to have the “corner” on the cross, historically Jews also have found significant meaning in this symbol. For many Jews the symbol of the cross, or crucifixion, has represented the great cost to their people in remaining faithful to their religious values.
THE METHOD OF CRUCIFIXION
Many are not aware of the fact that crucifixion did not originate with the Romans. According to James A. Freeman:
It was an ancient mode of capital punishment, and is said to have been devised by the Semiramis. It was in use by the Persians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Carthaginians, Scythians, Greeks, Romans, and the ancient Germans. It was a most shameful and degrading punishment, and among the Romans was the fate of robbers, assassins, and rebels. It was especially the punishment of criminal slaves.
Before we go any further in our investigation it would be best to ask, what is crucifixion? Many do not grasp the offense of the cross precisely because they do not understand the method God used to accomplish His saving purpose. Crucifixion was not a death any person would have wanted to die. Of course this seems obvious, but what I mean is that no one, Jew or Gentile, would want the stigma, not simply the pain, attached to such death by crucifixion. More on this later…