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The Scandalous Cross

The Crucifixion

While visiting northern Germany, a Lutheran Deacon took me for a tour of his ancient church. He pointed to a crucifix hanging on the side wall in the nave. He said, “Robert, a week ago a woman visited the church. And she could not understand why there was a man nailed to the cross. It was her first time seeing a crucifix up close. She said it was disgusting, distasteful, and disturbing. She begged me to remove it because she could not bear looking at it.” This gave him an opportunity to share the gospel with her. I have a crucifix hanging above my office window, and I too sometimes stare at it and think, “This whole crucifix thing is repulsive, seeing a human nailed to a timber post and a cross beam.” Our minds are so used to seeing images of a serene Jesus on the cross clothed with a loin cloth. The truth is, the crucifixion was worse than you could ever imagine, it was horrific.


The Crucifixion

John 19 gives us a detailed account of Jesus’s crucifixion. The execution began with an agonizing flogging by the Romans (v. 19). Such a scourging was fatal in many cases. It was so severe that according to Roman law, Roman citizens were exempt from it, and was used only for non-Romans and slaves. Flogging was carried out in public to make it as humiliating as possible. The victim was stripped naked and bound to a post and whipped from the shoulders to the loins with a flagellum. This was a whip with several (at least three) thongs or strands, each as much as three feet long, and the strands were weighted with lead balls or pieces of bone. This instrument was designed to lacerate. The weighted thongs struck the skin so violently that it broke open. The beating left the victim bloody and weak, in unimaginable pain, and near the point of death. The Jews usually stopped at thirty-nine lashes. Scourging, however, was much more traumatic, the lashes were delivered without any compassion or consideration for the victim, and unlike Jewish law, Roman law imposed no limit to the number of lashes inflicted at scourging.


After Jesus’s flogging by the Roman soldiers, they twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They placed a staff in his right hand, and they began to mock him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” (Matthew 27:29; John 19:2-5). A crown of thorns would have been exceedingly painful, but it was more about mockery than it was about inducing pain. Here, the “King of the Jews” was being beaten, spit upon, and insulted by low-level Roman soldiers. The crown of thorns was the finalizing of their mockery, taking a symbol of royalty and majesty, a crown, and turning it into something painful and degrading. Little did they know the symbolism embodied in the crown of thorns. When Adam and Eve sinned, they brought evil and a curse upon the world, and part of the curse upon humanity was, “…Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil, you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.” (Genesis 3:17-18). The Roman soldiers unknowingly took an object of the curse and fashioned it into a crown for the one who would deliver us from that curse (Galatians 3:13). Taking on our curse, Jesus was sinless! Even Pilate, the Roman governor found no guilt in him (John 19:4, 6; Isaiah 53:9; 2 Corinthians 5:21).


Yet the Jews demanded Jesus’s death, they cried out, “Crucify him! … We have no king but Caesar.” This is an interesting statement because the Jews did not even like Caesar, he was unkind towards the Jews and had some years ago invaded Israel and set himself up as the ultimate king of Israel and other nations. Caesar was the king of Rome and at that time the most powerful person in the world, and he set himself up as a son of god and was considered a god. The Jews did not like Caesar! Nevertheless, the chief priests cried out to Pilate, who was the Roman governor, and might I add, also a cruel individual. The Jews did not like him either. Yet, the Jews wanted Jesus crucified.


Jesus carried his own cross most of the way to where he was to be crucified. Once he was nailed to the cross, he was hoisted up for all to see. His body was covered in blood and sweat and was fully exposed (John 19:23–24; Psalm 22:18). Unlike the crucifixes and the images, we see of the crucified Jesus, he was utterly naked. The whole point was to humiliate the victim.


Once nailed hands and feet, Jesus’ knees were bent at 45 degrees. This forced him to bear his weight with his thigh muscles. One could only maintain this position for a few minutes until severe cramp would set in. Jesus’s weight was borne on his feet, with a nail driven through them. As the strength of the muscles of Jesus’ lower limbs tired, the weight of his body had to be transferred to his wrists, his arms, and his shoulders. Jesus’ shoulders were dislocated within a few minutes of being crucified, and soon after his elbows and wrists would also be dislocated. As the Psalmist prophesied, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.” (Psalm 22:14).


Don’t believe the movies and images that show Jesus’s crucifixion. The sight would have been very different. The victim was continually active on the cross. The crucified victim was physiologically forced to move up and down the cross, about twelve inches, to breathe. Jesus’s breathing caused excruciating pain as he applied pressure on the nails and rubbed his open flesh against the rough timber. Breathing became increasingly difficult, mixed with inevitable asphyxiation, which is a condition of severely deficient supply of oxygen to the body that arises from abnormal breathing. He was suffocating, and yet he was forced to breathe faster, a combination of choking and panting. You can imagine how Jesus would have used all his effort when he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son,” and to John, “here is your mother.” (John 19:26–27).


The pain from his two shattered median nerves in his wrists, caused by the nails, exploded with every movement. Jesus’ body was undergoing a series of catastrophic and terminal events. Too little oxygen in Jesus’s lungs would have caused his heart to beat faster and faster. And by about 12 noon Jesus’s heart began to fail. Because of the increasing physiological demands on his heart, and the advanced state of Hemopericardium, Jesus eventually sustained Cardiac Rupture. In other words, his heart literally burst. This was the ultimate cause of his death.


All victims of crucifixion would have had a plaque above their heads so that all would know what the person was being crucified for. Pilate, annoyed that the Jews forced him to crucify Jesus wrote his crime: “The king of the Jews.”


The Jews complained to Pilate and asked him to rather say, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” Pilate now irritated answered, “What I have written I have written.”


Power and Wisdom of the Foolish Cross

Now that we have a realistic picture of the crucifixion and the suffering that Jesus underwent, it shouldn’t be a surprise that those who don’t understand why Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross, perceive the cross and its message as utter foolishness.


The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:18–19, “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. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’”


The Corinthian Christians had a fascination with eloquence and the ability of ministers to preach, rather than on the message of Christ crucified. Yet, as we read in 1 Corinthians, these Christians lived contrary to the power of the cross and its message.


So, while the cross is foolishness to many, to those of us who believe, it is the power of God to save us, from Satan, Sin, and Death. It is the apparatus for the forgiveness of God to flow to us drawing you and I into reconciliation with the Father, and with one another.


And for those who think themselves clever and wise, it is the cross that unravels their wisdom, rendering it useless, and frustrating their intelligence.


The Scandalous Cross: Confounding the Wisdom of the World

The origin of Corinth was Greek, but it became a Roman colony in 44 BC. Although some of the greatest philosophers were Greek, many great philosophers were also Roman. The Greeks and Romans loved philosophy. As you might know, “Philosophy” is made of two Greek words, “philos” meaning love or desire, and “sophia” meaning wisdom. And so, turning to the Gentiles, Paul asks, “Where is the wise person, where is the philosopher of this age?” And then he turns to the Jews, who love the Law, the Torah, and asks, “Where is the teacher of the Law?” (1 Corinthians 1:22).


Paul proclaims that God has made the wisdom of the world foolishness because the world’s wisdom did not know him. And so, he began to work through the foolishness of the message of the cross to save those who believe in Christ Jesus, because as Paul said, it is the power of God.


Do you see what is going on here? Remember, Pilate had inscribed on a plaque, “The king of the Jews” in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. In Hebrew, for the Jews who gloried in the Law; in Greek, for the Greeks who gloried in wisdom; in Latin, for the Romans who most gloried in dominion and power. As if Pilate proclaimed (unintentionally), "This is the King of all people, because for the Hebrews Jesus fulfills the Law, for the Greeks, Jesus is pure wisdom, he is all-wise, and for the Romans, Jesus is all-sovereign and all-powerful. Jesus is their King too."


We Preach Christ Crucified: A Stumbling Block 

During Jesus’s ministry, the Jews kept demanding signs from Jesus to prove his Messianic claims (Matthew 16:1–4). They did this to manipulate him because he had already performed a multitude of signs, there wasn’t any excuse for their unbelief (John 3:2; 12:9–11, 37; 14:11).


The Greeks were cultured and loved their so-called wisdom, and so the message of the crucified Christ made no sense to them (Acts 17:21; Romans 1:14). And therefore, Christ is a stumbling block for many (1 Corinthians 1:23). However, God’s power to call people to himself works through a deeper wisdom, a wisdom that is only recognized by those whom God calls and gives faith to believe.


Behold Your King 

Like everything else about his death, Jesus knew that he would be scourged. He knew that before his execution on the cross, he would have to endure a savage, brutal beating at the hands of the Romans who were more than ready to vent their hatred against the Jews. He accepted those blows, knowing his body would be ripped open at the post, for you and I. He took the punishment of the sins of the entire world so that we might not have to suffer the consequences of our transgressions against him.


Christ, in His perfect atoning sacrifice, has delivered us from the curse of sin, of which a thorn is a powerful symbol, reaching back into the dawn of time when Adam and Eve fell into sin. While intended to be a mockery, the crown of thorns was, in fact, a powerful symbol of who Jesus is and what he came to accomplish.


Could Jesus Christ be greater than the Jewish sacrificial Passover lamb? John the Baptist certainly tells us in John 1:19, when Jesus comes walking towards him by the riverbank, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!


Later in John’s gospel, the scourged Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and a mock robe, stood before Pilate and all the Jewish people. Pilate told them, “Behold, the man!” (John 19:5). By this he meant, “Look at him now. He will not go around causing you any more trouble.” However, the mob was not satisfied with only a humiliated Jesus. They demanded his death. And so, he took Jesus into his palace and questioned him. Succumbing to the pressure of the Jews, he brought Jesus out again sat down on the judge’s seat, and proclaimed to the Jews, “Behold, your king!” (John 19:4–14).


Will you accept the wisdom of God that confounds the wisdom of the world through the foolishness of the cross? May the words of the Apostle Paul ring true for all of us who believe, “[Do not be] ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16a).


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