Crucifixion was a form of the death penalty used by the Romans in Jesus’ day. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia records the history and development of the cross as a form of punishment. The solitary cross as a form of punishment can be traced back to the ancient practice of publicly displaying the corpses of enemies on pointed stakes for the purpose of humiliation. Deuteronomy 21:23 required idolaters and blasphemers to be stoned and then hung on a tree to demonstrate that they were accursed. It later took on four variations. One of which was the form that we are familiar with, the Latin cross—the upright beam projecting above the crosspiece. This enabled an inscription of the charges to be nailed above the victim. The ancient Near East practiced impalement prior to crucifixion; the body of the victim was forced down upon a pointed stake. Crucifixion was later adopted by the Greeks; Alexander the Great is known to have used it extensively. On one occasion, he had two thousand of his enemies hung on crosses. In Jesus’ day, the world was under the dominion of the Romans who used crucifixion to punish slaves, pirates, and others with no civil rights.
All of this emphasizes the humiliation Jesus endured in order to be our Savior. So, when we read Philippians 2:8, “even death on a cross,” our hearts should be lifted up in praise to our great Redeemer. The cross was a disgraceful slaves’ death that was practiced openly on the busiest streets; the suffering was indescribable, usually ending in suffocation. Knowing this, Galatians 3:13 takes on new meaning: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’”
It is stunning, then, for us to consider the New Testament’s repeated identification of believers as those who have been crucified with Christ. At the moment of repentance and faith we were inextricably united with Jesus our Lord in His death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6:5-7). In order to make progress in the walk of sanctification—becoming more like Christ—we must constantly consider these things to be true of our new position before God (Rom 6:11). The Apostle Paul not only exhorted us to consider these truths to be true, but he lived by them. He consciously remembered the reality that his old life had been crucified with Christ and the life that he now lived was by faith in the Son of God (Gal 2:20).
The author of Hebrews also understood the power of meditating on Jesus Christ and His saving work. Instead of being mesmerized by the world’s media, today’s disciples are called to keep “fixing [their] eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). David Brainerd, missionary to the American Indians, wrote in his journal of how meditating on the gospel helps the pursuit of holiness:
I never got away from Jesus and him crucified. When my people were gripped by this great evangelical doctrine of Christ and him crucified, I had no need to give them instructions about morality. I found that one followed as the sure and inevitable fruit of the other … I find my Indians begin to put on the garments of holiness and their common life begins to be sanctified even in small matters when they are possessed by the doctrine of Christ and him crucified.
Remembering the suffering and death that our Savior endured to free us from the power and penalty of sin urges us toward the discipline of godliness. If we fix our eyes on Him and the price He paid to redeem us, we will be more likely to discipline our thoughts to meditate on what pleases Him.