The Cross of Jesus. It is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. People put it on their walls and desks, wear it around their necks and churches have it prominently displayed as a beacon expressing their allegiance to Jesus. But do we really understand the significance of the Cross? Jesus died on it for a reason so it is obviously important. What was it and why did Jesus die on a cross?
The cross at its truest was an instrument of torture. It was designed by its twisted architect to kill people, yes, but it was also meant to send a message and make a point. Whereas the electric chair or gas chamber, common comparison points for us today to understand the Cross, are meant to quickly execute someone with as little pain as possible, a cross was the polar opposite. Death on a cross was designed to take as long and to inflict as much pain in the process as possible. It was designed to hurt really badly, big giant nails pounded through your body tend to do that and to do so for a long time. The shortest crucifixion recorded was 30 hours and the longest was 3 weeks. All that time, the person being executed had a choice of either holding themselves up by the nails driven through their body or slumping down and compressing their diaphragm and slowly suffocating to death. Jesus would have had to pull Himself up by the nails holding Him to the Cross in order to speak at all. Suffocation through specific positioning on the Cross was part of the science of it.
In addition to the excruciating pain, the Cross was designed to be publicly humiliating. It was used by the Romans to show their complete and total domination over people, Jesus was stripped bare publicly and hung up before His people. His agony was put on display for all to see. The Romans were not shy about humiliating and stomping upon anyone that they thought opposed them. During the slave revolt that was lead by the Kirk Douglas inspiring Spartacus, 60,000 slaves were crucified along one of the major roads that lead to Rome from Southern Italy. Can you imagine what that looked like traveling along the road and seeing that much death and agony? The cross was so horrible and repulsive that Roman citizens were not allowed to be crucified. In comparison, getting your head chopped off was so much better that crucifixion was the boogeyman of Rome. Under certain circumstances of shame and dishonor, if you messed up horribly and the Emperor wanted to destroy you publicly then it was a possibility. It was so repugnant that it just wasn’t spoken of in polite circles. It was for slaves and barbarians only.
Yet, Jesus chose to take on this horrible death for us specifically. Jesus took the most painful and humiliating form of public punishment for each one of His sheep willingly and to make a point. The completeness of the misery of the Cross itself is part of the His message.
In 1 Corinthian 1, Paul lays out this concept:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”[a]
20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks[b] foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
The Messiah suffering such a death was inconceivable to the Jews who were expecting the Conquering King. It as beneath their dignity as Children of Abraham. An important person choosing crucifixion, their worst fear, was silly talk to the Greeks. It just did not make sense in a world that was based upon their intellect. Yet God says that the very foolishness of the Cross according to the World will be my method of testing. The message is obviously true if you let God be your guide in responding to it, but if you choose to rely on yourself you are perishing. The wisdom of the world cannot ever get us closer to God. The Cross smashes the worldly wisdom.
In order to embrace God and understand His sufficiency, we need to let go of self-sufficiency. We must humble ourselves completely in order to see the power of God at work.
God demonstrates this concept repeatedly in the Old Testament, if you have ever noticed, God makes the Israelites march around Jericho blowing a trumpet for 6 days before knocking down the walls and allowing them to prevail. Do you think that the trumpet tooting days were a bit humiliating, particularly if the mighty men of Jericho were watching? Without siege busting tools, what were the Israelites going to do against a fortified city — huff and puff and blow their trumpets really hard and and blow the walls down? God was making a point that on their own they could do nothing. He was letting them see their own powerlessness before showing His power. The world would have thought the plan itself was foolish and pointless – blowing trumpets and marching is never going to bring down walls – you will need a miracle!
Or how about Gideon and the band of 32,000 that come to battle the Midianites in Judges. God whittles them down to 300 so that it is clear that it is God who is fighting that battles. God does it in a way that appears foolish. God has them drink from a water source and those who get down on their hands and knees and laps like a dog from the water are chosen to be part of Gideon’s might band. We might be so used to the account that it doesn’t strike us as strange — those who drink water like a dog are the guys for God – it is ridiculous, it is foolishness according to the world. But God says these are the guys for me, no pretensions, no arrogance, no way anyone is going to think it was because they are awesome – they can’t even drink normally. God’s choice is clear and God’s power is unmistakable – it is clearly not the dog like water drinkers – that just makes no sense.
Gideon then gives them their secret weapons to fight against a giant Midianite army — trumpets and water pitchers – they will get them damp and play them a tune. Again, the world including the 300 likely say this is crazy until God shows His power. Sometimes we have to just make ourselves look incredibly foolish and wait for God to come through.
As Billy Graham liked to say, the Cross is an offense to the world. It is not pleasant and manageable. It is in your face evidence of a God who loves us so much that He died a horrible death to say us. How much must you love a person to die that way by your own free will? For those who are perishing it is foolish to think that God died on an ancient torture instrument, but for those called it is clear that it is the power of God and the wisdom of God. It is what saved us. Let us never forget that if it was up to us, we would never have chosen the Cross of Jesus — the world says anything but the Cross but God says this is the only way…..so that none may boast in my presence.