Easter is universally accepted as the holiest and most celebrated Christian holiday. Believers revel in Christ’s resurrection as proof of His victory over sin, in our redemption and forgiveness and in the certain hope of eternal life with Him.
However, the Friday before, we solemnly observe Good Friday, the ordeal of the crucifixion of Christ and his burial. But do we properly contemplate that day? Do we dwell on His death to the extent that we recognize His resurrection? Or is it a day off from work and not much more?
It is difficult to reflect on Christ’s suffering. It is a reminder of why He had to die, of his horrific suffering and of the sadness surrounding it. But it benefits us to consider, in depth, his death. Why was He crucified? Why not stoned or hanged? As dreadful as those would have been, at least He wouldn’t have suffered to the degree He did on the cross. Is there any significance surrounding the use of crucifixion by the Roman government?
History of Crucifixion
The Greek word stauros means an “upright pointed stake.” Hapless victims were either tied or nailed to the stauros. A gruesome variation was to impale the condemned man on the sharpened pole. According to Wikipedia, the first recorded instances of this type of execution are found in Persia, modern Iran. Darius I crucified 3,000 political enemies in Babylon. This brutality was also employed by the Assyrians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Macedonians.
Rome adapted this punishment from the Phoenicians and “perfected” it as a form of execution.
Their predilection for crucifixion was not only because the victims suffered enormously, anywhere from many hours to several days, it was also a great source of shame and humiliation for the person being crucified. The bodies were left to rot on the cross as a warning to others or thrown down as carrion for scavenging dogs and birds. To bury someone crucified was considered desecrating the ground. More dishonor could not be heaped on these tortured victims.
Because of this, mainly slaves, thieves, assassins or loathsome enemies and criminals were crucified. Barabbas, an assassin condemned to crucifixion, was released at the demand of the angry crowd, rather than setting Jesus free. (Luke 22:18-19) Gladiator-slave Spartacus and 6,600 of his followers were crucified after their rebellion against the Roman Empire was subdued. Their bodies lined the Appian Way from Capua to Rome, on display to passersby for years.
Crucifixion was rarely used for nobility or people of standing. Roman citizens were almost never subjected to this punishment. Hence, tradition says Paul, a Roman citizen, was beheaded whereas Peter, an Israeli citizen, was crucified.
The Mechanics of Crucifixion
There were three main types of crosses: the tau cross in the form of a “capital T “ because the crossbar rested on top of the pole; the” lowercase t” cross, where the horizontal bar was affixed below the top, probably in a notch; and one that consisted of two diagonal beams in the form of the letter “X.” The second form, of course, became the symbol for the followers of Christ.
No matter which type was employed, each produced excruciating pain and suffering. The condemned were placed on the crosses using nails driven through their feet and hands, tied to the cross or a combination of nails and rope was used. The condemned were stripped naked, adding to their humiliation and shame.
Wikipedia notes that crucifixions were carried out by specialized teams – a commanding centurion and four soldiers.
As if the crucifixion itself was not bad enough, it was almost always preceded by scourging, using a whip of leather strips embedded with metal or sharp pieces of pottery. According to the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, such scourging was referred to as the “intermediate death.” Some died from the loss of blood or shock from the beating rather than the crucifixion itself.
Jewish Law forbade crucifixion and the Jews considered it especially abhorrent. Christ could not have suffered a more painful, humiliating and shameful death.
Not until early in the Fourth Century was Roman crucifixion abolished. Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, abolished crucifixion to coincide with his Christian beliefs.
So back to the original question, why was Jesus crucified?
1. The depth of our sin and alienation from God cannot be appreciated fully until we look at the crucifixion.
The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible states it very succinctly:Since the cross was reserved for criminals and those accursed by God, it symbolized, too, the suffering, shame and humiliation Jesus endured (Heb. 12;2) for the human race, indicating the depths to which He was willing to go to lift up the worst and lowest of men.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." (Galatians 3:13 NIV)
Psalm 22 tells us: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.” (Psalm 22:6-7 NIV)
2. He also died at the hands of the Romans in order to fulfill prophecy:
"But we have no right to execute anyone," the Jews objected. “This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.” (John 18:32 NIV)
3. It was a shocking demonstration of what it took to redeem us and to satisfy God’s demand for justice and righteousness, even to the point of God separating Himself from the Son.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1 NIV)
4. It was a supreme demonstration of the infinite depth of His love for us.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 NIV)
On this Good Friday, take time for prayer and meditation. Can you imagine the leather strips of the scourge tearing into His back. That flogging was meant for us. Can you hear the mocking of the Roman soldiers as their angry fists pounded Jesus’ face. That beating was meant for us. Can you feel the unbelievable pain that Jesus must have felt as the large, iron nails were pounded into His hands and feet. Those were meant for us. Can you feel the shame and humiliation Christ felt hanging naked on that cross? It was the shame and humiliation of our sins. And, especially, imagine Christ’s utter and total anguish as he was separated from the Father in his hour of need. It was our separation from God that Christ experienced.
It is painful to ponder. But to do so is to approach the throne of grace and be immersed in the incredible love and mercy God has shown all who humbly approach Him in genuine faith. And the glorious celebration of Easter will be that much sweeter when we meditate on his supreme sacrifice.
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2 NIV)
Bob Kellogg is a senior online editor for Focus on the Family.