Jesus and CrossDuring this holiday when we remember and commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ, I think it may be beneficial to discuss the death of our Lord on the cross and what that really entailed. Paul talks about the “offense of the cross,” but I think that sometimes we have no idea what he was talking about. Thus, let us discuss some of what actually went on when one was crucified.

Imagine with me for a minute that you yourself are a first century believer being crucified for your faith in Christ. What exactly would you go through? Let us take up the story as you are being led through the streets to the place of your crucifixion. You are carrying your cross, or at least the crosspiece, and this clearly marks you out as one who is about to be crucified. The cross is heavy, of course, but not so heavy as the contempt being poured upon you from many of those you pass by. Crucifixion was a form of capital punishment reserved for the lowest of the low. Rebellion and murder were the usual offenses for being crucified, and so the general populace would look upon anyone being led away to be crucified as a despicable individual. You would face the constant jeers and ridicule of those along the way as you were led to your place of execution.

Then, you arrive at the place of crucifixion. You are stripped of your clothes, and the soldiers lay you on the cross. The nails are pounded into your hands and feet, which, needless to say, is extremely painful. As you are lifted into the air and your weight is shifted unto those nails, you are thinking only of the pain. Then, once you are raised into the air, you discover something else. Your position and the way you are hung pulls on your lungs and does not allow you to breathe. In order to take a breath, you will have to push yourself up by the nails in your feet. The pain of doing this, of course, is excruciating, but when you shift back down again, your weight is then more on your hands, and so they hurt more. Plus, now you can’t breathe again! So you have to develop a terrible rhythm of pushing yourself up and then relaxing again to take every breath.

Finally, however, you get this rhythm down, and start getting used to the pain enough to look around you. The first thing you probably notice is that you are high up in the air. Crosses were not little short things. The Bible describes it as “hanging on a tree” (Acts 5:30,) and the pole you are on is indeed high enough for you to look as if you were in the top of a tree. Moreover, you have not just been crucified in some out-of-the-way place somewhere. Rather, you are hanging right next to one of the main roads going into and out of the city! Many people are going past and can see you hanging on the cross.

The cross was not just meant to punish the condemned. It was also viewed as an advertisement sign to warn people away from rebellion against Rome. A cross was similar to a highway billboard today, and was set up to proclaim to all passing by on the busy streets, “This is what happens to those who rebel against Rome and break her laws!” As such, you as a person being crucified were a living advertisement for living peacefully under Rome’s rule and obeying Rome’s commands. Just imagine being hung on a billboard along the highway in our day and you get the idea.

But then, seeing all the people passing by and looking up at you, you suddenly realize that you are hanging up there totally naked! Your first reaction might be to instinctively try to cover yourself…but you forgot the nails in your hands! Ouch, that hurt! There will be no modesty for you. You just have to hang there without clothes in front of everyone.

The cross wasn’t just meant as a physical torture. It was also a total humiliation. In all our pictures of Christ on the cross we always have him wearing some nice little underpants or a loin cloth. Well, those are just to keep our pictures of Christ on the cross from being X-rated. No one wants to see a naked Christ on the cross. But the fact is that He was naked, as were all those hung on the cross. We can see this from John 19:23, where the word translated “tunic” in Greek is the word “chiton,” which means a garment worn next to the body. Underwear, in other words. The victim of the cross was not allowed modesty. Part of the torture was the humiliation of public nudity.

Finally you might start to come to grips with being so embarrassed. Then you would start to notice that, although you are in the view of all, you are so high in the air that you are cut off from anyone else, except perhaps those crucified near you. Up on your cross high in the air you almost have to shout to be heard by anyone and for anyone else to hear you. You might be in everyone’s view, but at the same time you are very alone.

And you start to realize that you are not only alone, but also helpless. Perhaps a bird comes and lights on your head. Normally you could shoo it away, but with your hands nailed down there is nothing you can do but feebly try to move your head to get it to go away. It might peck your eyes out and there is nothing you could do about it. If a storm blows up, there will be no way for you to shelter yourself from the rain or in any wise protect yourself from the elements. But if no storm arises, then there is the hot sun beating down on your head. There is no shade, no shelter from the hot eastern sun, while hanging on a cross. No wonder you would get thirsty and call for a drink! Yet if you do so, the soldiers will gladly offer you a drink…of vinegar. You might be so thirsty that you could even choke that down, but it would hardly be a pleasant or relieving experience to drink such a thing.

Isolation is one form of torture. But the ingenious thing about the cross is that it offered both isolation and public humiliation. It’s a hard thing to accomplish both at the same time! But, although all the while being on display for the world to see, the victim of the cross was also cut off from the world up in the air on that pole. The world seemed to watch at a distance, and the cross became a place of isolation. No one was near you to offer comfort or consolation. Although you were in public, you were also very alone. This was another facet to the ingenious torment of the cross.

But as you get used to feeling cut off and isolated on the cross, then at last comes to you perhaps the worst realization yet, and that is that none of this is killing you. The nails are pounded into spots chosen by long experience, and the blood flow from these well-supported areas soon slows as the blood clots. You will not bleed to death. Moreover, the exercise of lifting yourself to breathe, although strenuous, is nothing that a healthy, strong individual couldn’t stand for a very long time. Unless you are weak or sickly your muscles will not give out any time soon, and the incentive to breathe keeps you from purposely staying down and suffocating yourself even if you tried to do so. The elements, although annoying, do not necessarily kill, and certainly not quickly.

So how will you eventually die? Well, if you’re lucky, perhaps a thunderstorm will come up and a lightning bolt will strike the high pole of cross that towers in the air and thus end your life quickly. Otherwise you may hang up there for hours, or even days, before either sunstroke gets to you, your heart bursts from the strain, or your muscles give out and leave you to suffocate to death. None of these things are quick, and all of them are certainly less-than-desirable ways to die. History records that some victims of the cross could hang up there for days before exhaustion and exposure finally got to them and ended their lives.

This was indeed perhaps the most horrible way to die ever invented. It combined extreme pain with total helplessness and the feeling of being trapped. Then there was total isolation, but at the same time total public humiliation. Probably a worse combination of circumstances under which to die could not be conceived.

Which brings us to the real message of the cross. We know that Christ died for us. Yet at first this might almost appear to be a gratifying thing. To think that God died for us might make us think that we must be pretty special. It appeals to our human pride to think of Him making such a sacrifice on our behalf. Yet when we realize what death He died, then all such thoughts of pride disappear. For He did not just die any death, but rather He died on a cross. Totally alone! Trapped without hope of aid! In a terrible agony of pain! In total humiliation! And the message of the cross is that that was the death I deserved to die! It was we sinners who deserved to be up on that cross dying! For just as that cross was meant to punish rebels and transgressors against Rome and Roman law, so we all had rebelled against God and broken His righteous laws and standards. It was we who deserved to be up on that cross, dying the death that Christ died. There is no pride in that. There is only a terrible condemnation of the totality of our sin and shame in the sight of God.

The Holy Spirit through Paul speaks of “the offense of the cross” in Galatians 5:11. “And I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why do I still suffer persecution? Then the offense of the cross has ceased.” This verse contains an important point that too often we miss. If I can please God through acts of righteousness and rituals like circumcision, then I can look at myself as “pretty good.” I can imagine that I am pleasing in God’s sight and take pride in that fact. But if I am dependent upon the cross and the cross only for my salvation, then I am forced to admit my own condition. I have to admit that there is nothing I can do to make myself “pretty good” in God’s sight. Moreover, I have to admit that I am a sinner, and such a sinner as deserves the terrible death that Christ had to die. To many, it is unthinkable that they are deserving of dying such a shameful death as Christ died on the cross. That is why the cross is an offense to them. Preferring to think that they are “pretty good” people, they find the message of one dying for them in such a terrible way to be offensive.

Yet that terrible death is indeed how Christ died to pay our sins. Yet we realize that we were the shameful beings who deserved to be hung up on that cross to advertise to the world how sinful and wretched we were. We were the ones who deserved the isolation, humiliation, and pain of that awful form of death.

Yet there is another message in the cross, and that is of God’s great love for us. In spite of the fact that that is the death that we deserved, God loved us, and He was willing to die for us. What an amazing truth that is! First the cross brings us to the place of realizing our total unworthiness, and then it shows us that God in Christ loves us anyway. How we can gain hope from that! For we know that Christ died there in our place.

John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” In view of the cross we can better understand what this means. Romans 5:8 puts it this way, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we deserved a death like that of the cross, Christ died there on our behalf. And by His death He offers forgiveness for all those who believe on Him! Let us learn the lesson of the cross and never think that we can depend on ourselves for our own salvation. Let us remember the cross, and that we deserved to be the ones hanging there. But only by believing in Christ can we escape the just punishment for our sins. Then Christ’s death will be considered to have been in our place, and we, with Him, will enjoy eternal life.

If any who read this message have never believed in Christ and His death on the cross on our behalf, I would urge you to believe it now. You cannot hope to be good enough to earn favor in God’s sight. The cross teaches us that! The only way you can be good in God’s sight is to believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and His death on your behalf. Yet if you believe in Him, then even now your sins can be forgiven, and, instead of a person deserving of the humiliating death of the cross, you will be considered righteous and blameless in the sight of God. Don’t wait another minute before making sure that your sins are forgiven and that Christ’s death on the cross washed away your sins and guaranteed you eternal life.

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