At the climax of the apostle Paul’s description of the humility of Christ, which led to His voluntary submission to the cross as the will of God, is the phrase “even death on a cross.” The humility of Jesus resulted in the most humiliating death known to man at that time—crucifixion.
What was crucifixion like? 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.
Humility Led to Humiliation. 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 slave’s death carried out 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.’”
We have been crucified with Christ, and yet we live. 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) and walk accordingly—turning away from sin and practicing godliness. The Apostle Paul not only exhorted us to consider these truths to be true, but he lived by them as well. 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). But he also understood that true godliness also requires the ongoing working out of our salvation with fear and trembling as we discipline ourselves for godliness (Phil 2:12-13; 1 Tim 4:7).
Remembering the Crucified One. The author of Hebrews also exhorts us to fix our “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 of his love for the crucified Savior in his journal.
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.
His former humiliation will one-day result in exaltation. Remembering the suffering and death that our Savior endured to free us from the power and penalty of sin produces a well-spring of gratitude in our hearts, which continues to propel us to put forth every effort to become like Him who is worthy of all our worship. For all of eternity we will worship Christ as the Lamb who was slain for our sins (Rev 5). He will be exalted by the Father because of His willing obedience to His cross. The Word of God makes this crystal clear.
He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:8-11).