The Horror of the Cross

We live in a culture that does not understand the symbol of the cross. Today, the cross has become a mere religious symbol. We do not see its horror. D.A. Carson writes,

[T]he cross has become for us such a domesticated symbol. Today many women and men dangle crosses from their ears. Our bishops hang crosses around their necks. Our church buildings have crosses on their spires, or stained wooden crosses are backlit with fluorescent lights. Some of our older church buildings are actually built in cruciform, and no one is shocked.

Suppose you were to place in a prominent position in your church building a fresco of the massed graves of Auschwitz. Wouldn’t everyone be horrified? But in the first century, the cross had something of that symbolic value. Scholars have gone through every instance of the word “cross” and related expressions that have come down to us about the time of Jesus and shown how “crucifixion” and “cross” invariably evoke horror….Crucifixion was considered too cruel—so shameful that the word itself was avoided in polite conversation.

The early Christians would not have understood our fascination with the symbol of the cross. The cross as a piece of decorative jewelry would have been unthinkable, since the cross meant only one thing to them—DEATH. And not mere death, but horror, violence, shame, utter humiliation.

Crucifixion was the most humiliating, degrading death anyone could ever have imagined—conceived and invented in the depraved mind of man. This is why—when describing the humility of Jesus—the Apostle Paul does not merely say Christ humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, but EVEN death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). The apostle’s point in using the word “even” in verse 8 is this: The humility of Jesus Christ is most vividly displayed by the kind of death that He endured. Here, Paul provides two adjectives to describe the death of Jesus. It was obedient and it was humiliating.

Jesus died an obedient death.

It was the Father’s will that the Son of God die for our sins. In eternity past, the Triune Godhead laid out the plan of redemption and the Son of God agreed to pay the price of that redemption. This submission of His mind was expressed many times by Himself, verbally (John 3:14-15; 8:28).

In the garden of Gethsemane he prayed, “O, My Father. If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Luke 22:42). His earthly obedience was preceded by the surrender of his mind, heart, and will to the Father in heaven. Hebrews cites an Old Testament agreement of the Son to take on the body prepared for Him by the Father (Heb. 10:5-7).

The obedience of Jesus unto death brought glory to the Father. How is that? You ask.

  • The obedience of Jesus unto death testified of God’s truthfulness. The cross demonstrated that God is not a liar. From the moment Adam and Eve sinned, God promised to send a deliverer who was born of a woman and who would crush the Serpent’s head. But first, the Serpent would bruise His heel. From the time of Abraham, God had promised to send one from the line of Abraham to bring blessing to all the nations of the world. Through the prophets God promised to send one who would deliver His people from their sin. He would be a suffering Savior before He would be a victorious King.
  • The obedience of Jesus unto death is evidence of God’s justice. God is holy and God is love. But His love is not greater than His holiness. Therefore, He could not—out of love—simply choose to overlook our sin. That would be unjust. A just God and a righteous Judge cannot do that. If He had overlooked our sin without judging it, we should cry out “The judge is unjust!” So, He found a way to display both justice and love in the very same moment, in the same event.

Without the death of one who had never sinned, there would be no way for the righteous and holy God to allow us into His presence. But now, through the sacrificial blood of Jesus, we are brought near to God—we are accepted by God in Jesus.

Jesus died a humiliating death.

The phrase “even death on a cross” illustrates the extent of Jesus’ humility and the depth of His obedience to the Father. Christ, the Son of God, infinitely worthy of honor and worship, took His obedience to the ultimate display of humiliation—crucifixion, the most shameful, disgraceful form of execution. So high is the glory of Jesus, but so low was His death.

It is one thing for us, as sinful creatures, to be humiliated. It is another thing altogether for the sinless Son of God, who had previously dwelt in the fullness of glory, to lay aside that glory by veiling it in human flesh in the form of a slave. By using the phrase “even death on a cross,” Paul is drawing attention to the nature of crucifixion as the ultimate disgrace.

  • The cross was a disgraceful death. Crucifixion was practiced in public place for all to see. The Romans chose the busiest intersection to publicly humiliate their victims, which they believed also was a strong deterrent to other slaves who may steal or runaway.
  • The cross was a painful death. The suffering was intense. In addition to the sheer pain of being nailed or tied to a beam, the victim endured exposure to the elements of weather and insects. The stretching of the body as it hung led to intense pain in the wounds and sometimes caused severe headaches and convulsions. The ultimate cause of death was usually gradual suffocation.
  • The cross was a slave’s death. To the Romans, crucifixion was “the slave’s punishment.” Cicero, the famous Roman orator, said: “Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even from his thoughts.”
  • The cross was a wretched death. Hundreds of years before the Romans perfected the torture of crucifixion, the Holy Spirit led David to describe his own suffering in terms that later would be fully understood. Psalm 22 prophesied “all my bones are out of joint” (v. 14), and “They pierced my hands and my feet” (v. 16).

The Jewish historian, Josephus, who witnessed many crucifixions during the siege of Jerusalem, called it “the most wretched of deaths.” The essence of crucifixion was its slowness of torture. As horrible and humiliating as crucifixion was, the death of Jesus pleased the Father because it paid the price that His holiness and justice required in order to pardon and purchase sinners (Isa. 53:10).

What about you? What is your response to this truth? Scripture commands every one of us to turn to Christ, to look to him with eyes of faith. Romans 3:23-25 makes this clear: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

First John 5:11-13 makes it crystal clear there are only two options before each one of us. There is life in Jesus or there is death outside of Jesus. “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”

If you’ve never turned from your sin to Jesus, do so today. Today is the day of salvation.

[These thoughts are from yesterday’s sermon, “Even Death on a Cross.” To listen, search on the sermon title here.]

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