Why did God Choose an Terrible Way to Die?
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.
But do we understand the original significance of the Cross?
Jesus did not have to die on a Cross. He is fully sovereign and all-powerful. He could have chosen any number of ways to be killed that were less painful. Yet, He chose to be crucified – one of worst tortures in history. No one took His life from Him, He laid it down freely. Jesus specifically took a humiliating form of public punishment for you willingly. He did so for a reason. The complete and utter misery of the Cross is part of His message. It is His victory.
The cross was an instrument of torture. It was a way to kill people with extreme prejudice. 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”.
Crucifixion was designed to hurt terribly. The electric chair or gas chamber 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 inflict as much pain as possible. 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 diaphragm making 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.
If the pain were not enough, crucifixion was also 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.
Death on a cross was so horrible that Roman citizens were not allowed to be crucified. 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 Jesus’ message. It is part of His victory. It is also part of His winnowing process separating those who will follow Him from the stiff-necked and rebellious.
In 1 Corinthian 1, Paul lays out these concepts:
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:
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 was such a shameful and humiliating 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. A shameful death for the Anointed One was just silliness in their eyes. They were looking for a sign of their own choosing and were not going to get it. The Cross became a stumbling block to the Jews. They tripped over it in the journey to the Messiah.
A King choosing crucifixion was also unacceptable for the Greeks. It was madness. It did not make sense in the Gentile 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 poverty was inconceivable.
Yet God says this foolishness in their minds would be His method of testing. The message of the Gospel is obviously true if we listen to it. We just need to decide 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 is 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.
The truth is 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 Promised 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?
In their own strength and ability, they could do nothing.
God gives them an extremely peculiar battle plan in response. It involves marching around Jericho blowing a trumpet for 6 days before anything happened. How humiliating must tooting of horns for days have been? How silly must it have felt on day 3 when nothing happened?
We see God’s same purpose in this perceived humiliation. He let the Israelites see their own complete powerlessness before a great obstacle. He exposes their insufficiency 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 God’s great power could help those poor marching fools!
God’s power shining through those who are willing to face the world’s derision is unmistakable.
The Cross is an offense to the world. It is not pleasant and manageable. It was humiliating and shameful. It causes those who think that they don’t need salvation to recoil and stumble. Yet, to those who are being saved, 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 in such a 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. God says nothing but the Cross…so that none may boast in my presence.