Sunlight streamed through my bedroom window and poked me in the eye one early Sunday morning in April, 1948. I was ten years old. "June, June," I called to my seven-year-old sister in the bed across from mine. "Wake up. It's Easter."
She popped up and smiled as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Together we bounded down the stairs to the kitchen, hand-in-hand and opened the refrigerator. Sure enough. True to his custom, Dad had placed three beautiful carnation corsages on the top shelf next to the bottle of milk––one for Mom, one for June, and one for me. As usual, he'd snuck them into the house the night before after we were fast asleep.
We took the flowers out of their delicate boxes, eager to pin them to the front of our Easter coats. But first we'd step into our new spring dresses, lacey socks and patent leather slippers before donning our new straw hats and gloves. If only there were an Easter parade. I wanted to show off our new duds! I'd have to settle for the folks at church noticing us as we walked down the center aisle to our seats.
At that time of my life Easter was all about clothes, candy, Easter eggs and the beautiful baskets Mom filled with goodies and gifts for each one of us. Of course there was a bountiful dinner and a mouth-watering dessert to enjoy that afternoon, as well.
THE BIBLE TOLD ME SO
I had learned that Jesus died on the cross, was buried and rose from the dead on Easter morn. It was part of our family's belief system. It was in the creed we recited out loud each week at church. But the real-life event had happened so long ago, I didn't see any connection to my life nearly two thousand years later.
In the decades that followed, I repeated the Easter customs I had grown to love. There were always new clothes and lovely corsages, colorful jellybeans and Easter eggs, ham dinners and chocolate bunnies, perfunctory prayers, and of course, church on Easter Sunday. I continued the tradition as an adult when I had daughters and a son of my own. Until one year when we stopped going to church. The services seemed long and dry and my mind wandered to the things I'd rather be doing—like playing tennis or going for a bike ride around the lake.
Then suddenly without warning, in my late 30s, my life turned upside down like an umbrella in a rainstorm. And no amount of effort on my part could turn it right side up again. My husband left our family—just like that. I was a woman alone, divorced, then separated from my children for a time, without contact with my parents and scared out of my mind at what lay ahead.
I needed a Savior!
And into my life came Jesus Christ––the one I had read about, sang about, learned about—but never really knew until He came alive through the pages of Scripture and the shared experiences of caring people in a bible study I attended as a guest of a new friend.
THE ONLY WAY
One day as I cried out to God in pain, the verse from John 14:6 that I had read in class marched across the hallway of my mind.
"I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
These words of Christ lanced my heart and out poured all the grief, anger, disappointment, pain and pretense of a lifetime spent trying to look good and be good on my own power.
Suddenly I knew that my life never was and never would be only about me. It was a gift from God through Jesus Christ. He alone could turn my heart from one of stone to one of flesh. He alone could provide what I needed and desperately wanted—to be loved and forgiven and rescued. I confessed my sins and received Him as my Lord and Savior.
Easter that year—over 30 years after the Easter morn I remembered from 1948—was the first time I walked in the only new garments that matter. I was clothed in righteousness, released from sin, restored in spirit and recognized as a friend of God. All this and more because of what Christ did on Calvary and on that magnificent Easter morning when He rose in glory to secure for all eternity my life in Him and the lives of all who bow before Him, confess their sins and call Him Lord.
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though
he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25-26 NIV)."
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. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc., March 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion
Rome adapted this punishment from the Phoenicians and “perfected” it as a form of execution. 1. Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, p. 1038 The Romans were particularly fond of this form of crucifixion, employing it more than any other nation or government.
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. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc., March 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spartacus
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. Ibid. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion
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. 4. Ibid.
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.5. Zondervan, p. 1038
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. Zondervan, p. 1038
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)
Every year our family takes a trip to Minneapolis, Minn. to visit dear friends who have five children and, along with our four boys, we have a great time going to the zoo, laughing, talking, swimming at a hotel, eating out, etc. But this year I was wandering in the wilderness, wondering if I was going to make it out of the pit I was in? I was having anxiety attacks and, out of the blue, fear would grip my body to the point where I wanted to flee, feeling like a caged bird with nowhere to go (except maybe to the toilet to throw up).
"Zoo day" morning found me roaming the hotel hallway nauseated and panicked, hoping someone would answer my cell phone call for help. I needed my good mentor friends to speak truth so the running obsessive, crazy tape in my mind would stop telling me that I had a terminal illness, that I was going crazy and that I would never be well again. I needed hope to carry on. But none of my friends was available, so I walked into the hotel’s public restroom, locked the door, opened my cell phone, held it to my ear and began talking to the One whom I knew was available…Jesus.
First, I shared my thoughts out loud, telling Him how afraid I was. “Is my constant nausea due to stomach cancer? Why am I losing weight? Why is my parents' divorce so grievous and complicated? Oh, God, it’s all crashing in on me! I’m a mess! Take it all away!” And then I put my head between my knees and moaned. But as I became still and stopped moaning, I heard Him speak the verse I had memorized the week before, Micah 7:7. I repeated its truth out loud and it became my hope to hold onto; “But as for me, I will look to the Lord and confident in Him I will keep watch; I will wait with hope and expectancy for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.”
It’s important to always remember that God is not surprised by what we are experiencing; our trials first have to pass through Him before they come to us. We need to live in the present, not the “what ifs” of tomorrow. Of course that can be extremely difficult because living in the present is sometimes living in the pit. But if we’re there, God is also there; present, faithful, strong, loving, true and resurrected.
I know from John 10:10 that God has a great and abundant plan for me, but I also know from this same verse that the Enemy is prowling around trying to kill, steal and destroy this great plan. Satan is a liar, and in my weakened emotional state it’s hard to hear the truth and to think clearly. What works for me is to say out loud; “I’m gonna choose, in my troubles, to have a positive attitude and to focus on the possibilities and not on my problems.” I then begin a private counseling session with myself by asking: “Debbie, are you putting your confidence in God or in your feelings, your circumstances or in other people? Are you keeping watch, hoping and expecting good things from a good and loving God? Do you believe God hears you?”
I then answer with the truth: Listen, Debbie, you may feel incredibly awful and that you’ll never feel like you again and like you won’t find your way out, but that’s not true. Now, listen carefully and closely! God does hear you. He knows you intimately and personally and He created you for a very specific purpose. Remember Zephaniah 3:17 which you memorize? Well then, say it and know its truth: 'For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty Savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With His love, He will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.’ Debbie, God doesn’t like it when you hurt and He does have a plan for your healing and restoration. He loves you with an everlasting love. He is making you lie down in green pastures to restore your soul (Psalm 23:2) while He is getting up to do something about your situation! He hasn’t changed His mind about you just because you’re in a hard place. He has an amazing plan for your life!” “YES, YES, YES!” I yell out in the bathroom but then I add, “I do believe, help me in my unbelief!”
Over and over I’ve often asked, “Why? Why is life so difficult?” But then Jesus would say to me, “I won’t always give you the answers to all your “whys” but I am the way and I will show you the way to walk and give you the strength to face difficult people and the difficult places. And one thing you can be confident of is that I will never leave or forsake you!!! I realize, too, that I may not know the mind of God but I can know His heart by the promises in His Word.
Psalm 94:14 says that when my anxious thoughts multiply within me God’s Word delights my soul. But if I don’t know His Word how then can it feed and comfort my soul? It can’t. The most frequently asked question, after I speak at a conference or retreat, is, “How do you know so many scriptures, how do you memorize it all?” I suppose being a theater major and having had to memorize numerous lines for plays has helped me. But because I need His Word to survive and because I want the joy and peace He has to give, I need to think about and memorize the His Word because that’s how God speaks to me.
Since 1995 I have been consistently in God’s Word, writing His words of encouragement to me in a little 3 x 5 spiral memo notebook, which came to be known as my “manna” book. God gave the Israelites manna as they journeyed toward the Promised Land, giving them precisely what they needed each day and, if they stored more than they needed, it was stinky and maggot-infested the next day. I learned that the same is true for me. I can’t harvest and store all of God’s Word I need on Sunday mornings at church or even at a really good Beth Moore Bible study on Thursday nights. I need to feed on the truth of His promises EVERYDAY. Otherwise my “manna” will be stinky, day-old “manna.” I carry my "manna" book or a note card around all day so I have the truth God lays on my heart, the something He wants me to know and memorize.
That’s the beauty of Easter for me; Jesus dying on the cross for my sin, my troubles, my weakness. He didn’t die on the cross so I could have a religion but He died and rose again so I could have a real and personal relationship with Him. Jesus is the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, which means His Word is living and active, too! That’s powerful! With all that I’m been through in my life, the one thing that carries me through my marriage, parenting, my extended family and friendships, our basement flooding, health problems, financial concerns, etc. is the fact that there is a God who is alive and well, whom I can talk to at anytime. I’m at the place where “I get to read the Bible” and not “I have to read the Bible.” Now, not only do I talk to God, but I can hear Him answer me from His Word! And when I call Him on my cell phone He always there. It’s because I know and trust the relationship that I have with Him that I want to follow the plan He has for me, His way, His rules, His Bible.
God our Redeemer lives and I do know I will come out of my dark pit stronger with a blessing and testimony of His greatness that will allow me to help others out of their pit of troubles. I’ve seen this happen time and time again in my life and in the lives of others.
As I left the bathroom I wish I could have said I felt this, too. But I, for one, am not comforted by the knowledge of this when I’m stuck in a pit of despair. I would love to tell you I had a happy-go-lucky-it’s-going-to-be-a-great-day-at-the-zoo kind of day, but I didn’t. However, because I had hope I was able to leave the hotel and take the next step to the family van. As I walked to the parking lot I finished my phone call with God by saying out loud (and with quite a bit of passion I might add) Micah 7:8; “Rejoice not against me, O my enemy! When I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light to me.” And that truth, along with the sunny day walking outside at the Minnesota Zoo, was all the faith I needed for that day.
Fortunately, faith isn’t a feeling. Faith does not always keep me from having trouble; it most often carries me through trouble. If I never had trouble, I would never need faith. And, doesn't God say; “Don’t worry about tomorrow for each day has enough trouble of its own?!” And to that I say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord and AMEN!” Because I know our risen Lord will be walking with and loving me in all my tomorrows no matter where I’m…everyday!