The Cross of Jesus. It is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. We put it on our walls and desks at work. We wear it around our necks as jewelry. Most churches have it prominently displayed as a beacon expressing our allegiance to Jesus.
The cross was originally an instrument of torture. It was a way to kill people with extreme prejudice. It was not like its modern relations like the electric chair or gas chamber. They are designed to quickly execute someone with as little pain as possible. The cross was the just opposite.
Death on a cross was designed to take as long and to inflict as much pain in the process as possible. Crucifixion was a message from the oppressor to the oppressed. It was meant to make a point. “Don’t mess with the power of Rome or you will end up like this guy” each crucifixion shouted to anyone who saw it.
Crucifixion was designed to hurt terribly. Giant nails pounded through your body tend to do that. It is also not a short process so they also hurt 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. Due to the position of the body on the cross, a person’s breathing was very difficult. Their upper body pressed upon their diaphram made taking even one breath hard. So they could make their breathing easier by pulling themselves up by the nails driven through their body or they could slump down and slowly suffocate to death. Suffocation through specific positioning on the Cross was part of the science of it.
If that were not enough, crucifixion was designed to be publicly humiliating. It was used by the Romans to show their complete and total domination over people. The victim was stripped bare and publicly displayed hung up before his people to allow them to watch him slowly die. His agony was put on display for all to see to teach a lesson of humiliation.
The Romans were not shy about humiliating and crushing anyone who opposed them. During the slave revolt lead by Spartacus, 60,000 slaves were crucified along one of the major roads that lead to Rome from Southern Italy. Can we imagine what that looked like traveling along the road and seeing that much death and agony?
Death on a cross was so horrible that Roman citizens were not allowed to be crucified. Getting your head chopped off was so much better by comparision that crucifixion was the boogeyman of Rome. It was so repugnant that it wasn’t spoken of in polite circles. It was for slaves and barbarians only.
Yet, this is the form of death chosen for the Son of God. Fully sovereign, all powerful 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. He did so to make a point.
The complete and utter misery of the Cross is part of His message. It is part of His victory.
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 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. They were expecting the Conquering King. It was beneath their dignity as Children of Abraham. The Messiah would destroy their enemies and sit on a great bejeweled throne in Jerusalem. Death by an instrument of torture for the Annointed One was just silliness in their eyes. They were looking for a sign of their own choosing and were not going to get it.
Nobility choosing crucifixion was also madness to the Greeks. It just did not make sense in a world that was based upon their intellect. They pursued prominence, wealth, power and pleasure. Their chosen king, the Roman Emperor, lived in unimaginable luxury. A King who died in embarrassment, shame and povery was inconceivable.
Yet God says the very foolishness of the Cross according to the World will be His method of testing. The message can be known as obviously true, if and only if, we let God be our guide in responding to it.
If we search out the answer with an open heart and open mind, the answer is provided by God Himself.
But if we choose to rely on ourselves, it seems to be foolishness. Our perishing sinful hearts rebel against it. 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. We must even tame our religious expectations and intellect.
God demonstrates this concept repeatedly in the Old Testament.
When Joshua leads the Israelites into the Promise Land, they are initially presented with an insurmountable obstacle. The great city of Jericho is in their way. Without siege busting tools, what were the Israelites going to do against a fortified city? Would they huff and puff and blow the walls down?
On their own they could do nothing.
God gives them a battle plan that involves marching around Jericho blowing a trumpet for 6 days before anything happened. Do we think that the trumpet tooting days were a bit humiliating, particularly if the mighty men of Jericho were watching? How silly must it have felt on day 3 when nothing happened?
God did this for a purpose. He let them see their own powerlessness before a great obstacle before showing His power. The plan itself seemed foolish and pointless. Blowing trumpets and marching is never going to bring down even a small wall. Only a miracle could help those poor marching fools!
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 drink in a certain way 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 in one way are the guys for God.
It is ridiculous, 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 .
Gideon then gives them their secret weapons to fight against a giant Midianite army, trumpets and water pitchers. The plan is evidently to get them damp and play them a tune. Sometimes we have to just make ourselves look incredibly foolish and wait for God to come through.
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 save 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. He is God. 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 nothing but the Cross…so that none may boast in my presence.