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John 19:17-18 (NKJV)
17 And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, 18 where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center.
If we were able to transport people from the ancient world to our sanctuary this evening, they would be surprised by how much the world has changed. Lights without fire. Heat without thinking about it. People wearing such fine clothing . And yet, I think what would really catch their eye, and puzzle their minds, would be the decorations which adorn this place of worship.
Front and center their eyes would meet a symbol which would puzzle them at least, if not fill them with horror. “What have these people of the future gathered here to worship?” they would wonder. “Death? Is this a cult centered around torture and pain?”
They would wonder this, of course, because central to our sanctuary is the cross. Though we have grown to take the cross for granted, it really is astounding that such a grizzly device has become a commonplace decoration in churches and homes the world over.
To the ancients the cross was not so much a symbol, as it was a tool of unthinkable torture.
Crucifixion was a method of execution thought up by the Phoenicians. It was later adopted by the Romans, and further developed. The idea was to wring out as much suffering as possible from the crucified before he finally died. Crucifixion was meant to crush the spirit, as well as the body.
While there were many different ways of crucifying a person, tonight we’ll focus on how the Romans did it.
First the condemned criminal had to carry the cross to the place of execution. It’s likely that the vertical beam was already waiting for the condemned, firmly planted in the ground. But still, to carry the large beam which would support the arms was exhausting work.
When the party had arrived at the place of execution, the criminal’s arms would be stretched out across that horizontal beam which he had carried. Then a rather large steel spike would be driven through each outstretched hand.
Next the team of executioners would raise the horizontal beam up onto the vertical one, with the criminal dangling below it, and secure the two together. And, voila! A charming cross was crafted.
Then a little ledge would be attached to the cross, allowing the dangling criminal a perch on which to rest his feet. But this perch had a definite slope downward making it frustrating to stand on. To help the criminal, the executioners would take a couple more large nails, or sometimes just one larger shank of metal, and pound that through the feet. Then the feet wouldn’t slip anymore.
Now, holding your arms up horizontally for more than a few minutes is quite excruciating. Just try it sometime. Try to hold them out straight for say, ten minutes. I’m guessing you won’t make it. Now imagine trying to hold up the weight of your body from those burning arms.
The feet of the crucified could lend some help, pushing up from below. And so a seesaw motion was effected. Hold with the arms for a time, then with the legs to give the arms some rest. Then back to the arms to give the legs some respite.
But with each movement those pesky iron nails would send shoots of electric agony through the body.
Some reports say that a human being dangling freely from the arms like this would cause a crushing of the lungs, suffocating the crucified if they didn’t push up with the legs. But a more recent study, in which a man voluntarily suspended himself from the arms, reveals that breathing is indeed possible without support from the legs—it’s just extremely painful.
Crucifixion was also designed to humiliate the condemned. On the way to the place of execution, the criminal’s crime was paraded for all to see.
Once on the cross, he hung not high, like some artists depict, but more likely just a few feet off the ground. This was oh, so tantalizing. Solid earth, and rest, such a short a distance away.
With a close view of anything that went on below, the criminal could see the Roman soldiers dividing up his remaining possessions. This was one final reminder that condemnation had been proclaimed. That there would be no stay of execution. The world was already treating the crucified as a dead man.
So that the crucifixion would be a useful tool to educate the living, the place of execution was often near a well traveled road. That way the living could see what happens to those who choose a life of crime. But with all those who passed by, none would—or could—do anything to help. There were, after all, four trained soldiers assigned to each cross to guard the condemned and “protect” him from any who might try to interfere.
Anyone who wished to offer a few last words of hatred or insult toward the condemned, were free to do so. And the crucified, if they could muster the strength and focus, could spit or curse down on those below. But, it wouldn’t do much good. And their curses would ring hollow as their suffering continued.
Eventually the condemned would die. And their corpse would be unceremoniously de-crossed, and deposited in a common grave with others who had met the same fate.
Can you see why the cross, placed so centrally in our sanctuary, would make an ancient traveler uneasy?
If the ancients were to see the cross as a symbol, to them it would be a symbol of suffering, humiliation, and death.
But Jesus changed all that.
Many were crucified before Jesus, two were crucified with him, and many were crucified after him. When Jerusalem fell in 90 AD, during the last siege, history tells us that hundreds of crosses rose daily until it seemed like there wouldn’t be enough room for them, or enough wood.
But none of THOSE who were crucified changed the nature of the cross. For them it was just the old cross in action, bringing suffering, humiliation, and death.
No doubt many of those crucified throughout the ages were guilty. Perhaps deserving of even such a horrible death. Perhaps there were some who were not guilty at all, but only caught up in events that were no fault of their own. And maybe, just maybe, some of the crucified died for others, giving themselves up so someone else might escape.
And yet, none of these changed what the cross meant to the ancient world: Crime and punishment. Suffering and death. Grim justice served.
But like I said, Jesus changed all that.
“17 And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, 18 where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center” (John 19:17-18 NKJV).
In the hands of the almighty God, the cross became more than a tool of torture and execution. In the hands of the almighty God, the cross became an altar of divine sacrifice.
Jesus wasn’t just an innocent man, he was THE innocent man. The only man in history who had no crimes to pay for, no sins to regret.
Jesus wasn’t just a person giving himself up so that someone else might escape. As the eternal Son of God made human, his sacrifice was valuable enough to pay the ransom price for the entire sinful human race.
Jesus wasn’t just one more person caught under the crushing iron foot of the Roman empire. Remember the mob which came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? When Jesus told them that he was the one they were looking for, the whole crowd had fallen to the ground (John 18:6).
Jesus’ path to the cross was different than all those who went before, and all those who went after. The sinless Son of God CHOSE to go to the cross in order to suffer in the place of all sinners, you and me included.
And more than suffering the pain of crucifixion, on that cross Jesus suffered hell in the truest sense of the word. While hanging from those nails, Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus felt the horror of being separated from his heavenly Father, completely. He suffered hell, because hell was the full punishment due for our sins. And that was what he had come to pay.
This is why any Hollywood depiction of the crucifixion will never be adequate. For how could you capture hell in a mere screenplay? How could you make your audience FEEL what Jesus felt in the darkness that Friday afternoon?
And this is where the cross underwent the most astounding transformation. The old cross was a mode of execution meant to bring suffering, humiliation, and death—to one man. But in the hands of God, the cross became a tool of salvation. A tool through which Christ Jesus earned joy, redemption, and eternal life, for ALL sinners, not just for one person. FOR ALL.
By simple faith in Christ, our sins are erased. By faith, all that Christ suffered on the cross is pasted onto our record, covering over every sin we’ve ever committed.
In the book of Romans, Paul writes…
“3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4 ESV)
In Colossians, Paul writes…
“12 having been buried with him in baptism… you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses… God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:12-14 ESV).
Through faith, which Baptism creates or seals, sinners are united to Christ! And united to him in such a way that all that is his, is credited to us.
This is why we make the sign of THE CROSS on the children and adults that we baptize! This is why we make the sign of THE CROSS when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper! This is why we hang decorative CROSSES in our homes, and why we put them on chains so that they hang close to our hearts!
The cross is no longer a symbol of death and suffering. Jesus has made it a symbol of grace!
In the Bible, the term “grace” simply means “undeserved love.” On the cross, the Son of God took what we deserved—condemnation and hell. And he gave us what we didn’t deserve—forgiveness and heaven.
What a gift! What an exchange.
Perhaps we take the cross for granted. After all, we see it on TV, in tattoos, on shirts, on signs, all over the place. It hangs in our homes, in our cars, on our necklaces.
In the ancient world it was a tool of suffering and death. To many today it is just another design or decoration. But to us, to us let the cross ever retain the NEW meaning God has given it through his Son. Let the cross be to us, a symbol which reminds us—I’ve been set free. Released. Forgiven. Raised to life. And all this through Christ Jesus my Savior. Let the cross be to us, a symbol of God’s saving grace.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts, and your minds, in Christ Jesus.