“So he delivered him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.” (John 19:16-18)
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is so central to our faith, so often communicated by Christians and in churches that it seems we do not need to learn anything more than what we already know. At the same time, there are churches and church attendees who are removing the message of the crucifixion of Christ from their buildings, preaching and conversations. This, therefore, makes the circumstances and meaning of the crucifixion of Christ all the more paramount for believers to trust in, commit to, depend upon and worship the God of its inception and fulfillment.
For the next several days, we will examine the subject of the crucifixion of Christ in three distinct areas. Those areas of study include (1) crucifixion’s historical context and origination; (2) its specific application to Jesus Christ’s historical crucifixion; and (3) the theological significance of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion to the climatic message of the Gospel.
Let’s begin with a basic definition. Crucifixion was an ancient form of execution or capital punishment. Two ideas pertaining to crucifixion occur in Scripture: there is the “cross,” which was the pagan mode of capital punishment, and the “tree,” which was the Jewish form. Jesus’ crucifixion was the means by which He accomplished atonement for sinners. It should also be noted that Jesus figuratively used the term “cross” to illustrate the sacrifice required in discipleship. Finally, the Apostle Paul also to symbolize the death of self in the process of sanctification following the justification of the sinner by grace alone, through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone.
How did crucifixion originate? Who designed it to be a form of execution? The Tyndale Bible Dictionary provides valuable insight in not only the Pagan Mode of crucifixion but also the Jewish Mode.
The Pagan Mode Literally, the word “cross” in Greek referred to a pointed stake used for various purposes, including an instrument of execution. It could be an upright stake, used to impale a victim, or a vertical stake with a crossbeam either across the top (T) or across the middle (+), used to hang or crucify a criminal, with the added disgrace of public display. Evidently crucifixion was practiced first by the Medes and Persians and later by Alexander the Great (356–323 BC), the Carthaginians, and the Romans. Both Greeks and Romans restricted its use to slaves, considering it too barbaric for citizens. In the imperial era the Romans extended the use to foreigners, but even so it was used mainly for crimes against the state.
Crucifixion was universally recognized as the most horrible type of execution ever devised. In the East, in fact, it was used only as a further sign of disgrace for prisoners already executed, usually by decapitation. In the West the condemned criminal was scourged (whipped), usually at the place of execution, and forced to carry the crossbeam to the spot where a stake had already been erected. A tablet stating the crime was often placed around the offender’s neck and was fastened to the cross after the execution. The prisoner was commonly tied or sometimes nailed to the crossbeam (with the nails through the wrists, since the bones in the hand could not take the weight). The beam was then raised and fixed to the upright pole. If the executioners wished a particularly slow, agonizing death, they might drive blocks or pins into the stake for a seat or a step to support the feet. Death came about either through loss of blood circulation followed by coronary failure or through the collapse of one’s lungs, causing suffocation., which could take days. Therefore, the victim’s legs would be broken below the knees with a club, causing massive shock and eliminating any further possibility of easing the pressure on the bound or spiked wrists. Usually a body was left on the cross to rot, but in some instances was given to relatives or friends for burial.
The Jewish Mode A different form of crucifixion is seen in the OT. King Saul’s body was decapitated and affixed to a wall by the Philistines (1 Samuel 31:9–10). The Persian king Darius made impaling the penalty for altering his decree (Ezra 6:11). According to Deuteronomy 21:22–23, the Eastern form was employed by the Jews with the added provision that the body must be removed from “the tree” before nightfall, because the victim was “accursed by God” (cf. Galatians 3:13) and must not remain to “defile the land.” The Roman form of crucifixion was not employed by the Jews. The only exception was a mass crucifixion of 800 rebels by the Jewish ruler Alexander Janneus in 76 bc, reported by the Jewish historian Josephus as being universally condemned by the Jews. Some believe that Jewish courts did practice the Western method of crucifixion after the second century BC.
The New Testament has much to say about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ being the central doctrine of the Gospel. It is to that area of study which we will examine when next we meet.
May God’s truth and grace reside here.
Soli deo Gloria!