The Scandal of the Cross
Invented by the Persians. Adapted by Alexander the Great. Passed on to the Carthaginians. Perfected by the Romans.
Jewish historian Josephus called crucifixion – “the most wretched of deaths.”
Roman philosopher Cicero forbade even the thought of it by stating,
“Far be the very name of the cross, not only from the body, but even from the thought, the eyes, the ears of Roman citizens.”
With the body traumatized, muscles devastated, and the blood loss sever – it was a strategically slow and designedly painful death by asphyxiation.
In fact – this method of execution was so horrendously agonizing; a word was invented to describe it.
The word literally means, “from the cross.”
The cross – a symbol of shame and disgrace reserved for only the most despised criminals. An icon for those found on the wrong side of the empire. Cross jewelry would be a lot like wearing a small electric chair around your neck.
Before victims were led to the cross, however – they would first have to be scourged. This scourging was inflicted by something called a flagrum – a whip made of several straps with metal balls to tenderize and hooks of bone, metal, or glass to rip apart.
This scourging was so severe that the victim would often go into shock from loss of blood, never even making it to their crucifixion at all.
Jesus – after being forced to walk through a series of false trials – underwent this brutal flogging and was then given a 100-pound crossbar called a patilbulum to carry on his exposed back to his execution.
The 650-yards road he walked was called the Via Dolorosa (The Way of Suffering) would likely have been lined with people ready to mock, insult, and spit on Jesus as he limped toward Golgatha.
Unable to make the nearly one-mile journey, Jesus collapsed under the weight of the crossbar, likely bruising his heart. Simon of Cyrene was appointed to help him the remainder of the way.
Upon reaching his destination, his beard was plucked – an ultimate act of shame in a 1-century context – and a crudely fashioned crown of thorns was forcefully shunted down into his scalp, one of the most vascular areas of the body.
Then Jesus Christ, the young carpenter, had iron nails (that were more like spikes) 6-inches in length driven into the most sensitive nerve centers in the human body, his hands and feet.
Now – none of this was done in private; in fact, quite the contrary. Crowds would gather to gawk, mock, and hurl insults of their own – akin to nailing a naked bloody man outside the entrance of a ballpark for everyone to witness.
Despite many ancient depictions – it is commonly believed that the victims were actually crucified at eye level so that the sufferer would be forced to make eye contact with the crowds who came to insult these men in their final moments – often hanging on their cross for as long as nine days.
Some scholars assert that Jesus likely had a chest contusion that would’ve eventually caused an aneurism. His heart unable to pump enough blood would’ve left his lungs filled with carbon monoxide.
And while others being crucified typically responded to the jeers of the crowd with curses of their own – we are given a stunning picture in the Gospels of Jesus loving, forgiving, and caring for those around him. Amidst the blood, sweat, and urine – we have an unbelievable glimpse of the crucified Messiah – abounding in love even in his final moments.
It was in these final moments that Jesus declared, “tetelestai – it is finished!” Now, this word is written in the perfect tense, so it doesn’t simply mean, “this happened” but more accurately, “this happened, is still happening, and is forever done.”
All the evil, wickedness, iniquity – converged on to this one point; which was and is Jesus Christ. Sin did it’s worse to him and Jesus was able to fully exhaust it’s force – this was the ultimate defeat of violence.
Anglican bishop N.T. Wright puts it this way;
Part of its meaning is that in Jesus’ world that word “finished” was what you wrote on a bill when it had been settled: “Paid in full!” But underneath these is the meaning John intends, I believe, most deeply. When God the Creator made his wonderful world, at the end of the sixth day he finished it. He completed his work. Now, on the Friday, the sixth day of the week, Jesus has completed the work of redeeming the world. With his shameful, chaotic, horrible death he has gone to the very bottom, to the darkest and deepest place of the ruin, and has planted there the sign that says “Rescued.” It is the sign of love, the love of the creator for his ruined creation, the love of the saviour for his ruined people. Yes, of course, it all has to be worked out. The victory has to be implemented. But it’s done; it’s completed; it’s finished. – N.T. Wright
It was at this moment that the temple curtain, the curtain that only the High Priest was allowed to pass, tore, not from bottom to top but top to bottom – signifying that God had opened his presence to the world, granting access through the cross of Jesus Christ.
This, I believe, is the scandal of the cross. It’s a picture of a loving Father on a divine rescue mission to save broken humanity.
As my good friend John Armstrong has said,
“Jesus conquered death, rose victorious over the grave, defeated sin, hell and death and now lives to make intercession for us at this very moment. The Spirit gives us new life. I like to think of this a transfusion of resurrection life.” – John Armstrong (Act 3 Network)
Good Friday, like communion, is in many ways about remembering – remembering the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But for the Christ-follower – it’s also a celebration of the torn curtain, the access granted, and the dawn of new life.
And it is in this newness that we, as we live and love – turning a symbol of imperial terror and intimidation into a symbol of relentless hope and joy.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
*Everyone is invited to join us at Poplar Creek Church (in Bartlett, IL) for an intimate Good Friday service – April 18th, 7pm (poplarcreek.com).