What the Cross Means: The Spiritual Meaning of Jesus Christ’s Sacrifice

When Jesus was crucified, it was more than just a human being dying on a cross. It was a spiritual event that had great significance for all of humanity. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is perhaps the most important event in history because it represents the ultimate act of love and sacrifice. In this blog post, we will explore the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

Not so long ago, a book was published with the title: What Was God Doing on the Cross? It appears that there are two questions being asked, not one. “What was God doing on the cross?” we might ask. Why was the God-man impaled on a Roman gibbet? It seems shocking that God should be crucified. Second, “What was God doing on the cross?” We wonder about this after noting that the God-man was on the cross. What did Jesus accomplish through his crucifixion? To what end and for what purpose did he suffer as a god-man?

The difficulty is that there are an increasing number of Christians who are having a hard time answering it. Three reasons contribute to this: (1) a diminishing sense of God’s holiness; (2) a declining sense of mankind’s guilt; and (3) an inordinately high opinion of oneself. I believe that while there is a need for solid self-confidence, many people are currently so enamored with themselves that they can’t help but wonder why Jesus had to die for them in the first place!

However, when we examine the passage carefully, we see that God’s holiness and our depravity compelled Christ to suffer the eternal penalty we deserved because of the infinity of God’s holiness and the depths of our depravity.

What the Cross Means

The Agony and Shame of Crucifixion

The fact that “two thousand years of pious Christian tradition have largely domesticated the cross, making it difficult for us to comprehend how it was regarded in Jesus’ time” (Carson, 573) must be taken into account when attempting to understand Christ’s suffering. Both the excruciating and shameful aspects of crucifixion have been lost, and no matter what we think we know about this mode of death, it is meaningless compared to what those living in the first century knew.

The NT provides little information regarding the specifics of crucifixion. When it comes to the actual crucifixion of Jesus, all four gospel authors are remarkable for their brevity and restraint. All that is stated in Matt. 27:35a; Mark 15:24a; Luke 23:33; and John 19:18 is that “they crucified him.” Why is so little written down for us? There are at least two reasons for this. To begin with, crucifixion was such a regular occurrence that its specifics were well-known, thus they must have felt it was unnecessary to be more precise. In the late first century, the people were all too familiar with crucifixion. More significant is the fact that crucifixion was so loathsome and unthinkable that they refrained from saying much about our Lord’s sufferings. Later on, I’ll get into this in more depth.

Historical Crucifixion

The theological significance of the cross cannot be divorced from the historical and physical occurrence itself. According to their form, crosses would vary in shape:

The most frequent forms were X, T, and t. The cross was often quite high. The height of the cross was crucial. The victim’s feet would generally be no more than one to two feet above the ground to allow wild animals and scavenger dogs in the city access to it.

Martin Hengel (Crucifixion, 9) informs us that “Punished with limbs stretched out before them, they view the stake as their destiny; they are fastened and nailed to it in the most severe agony, a heavenly banquet for birds of prey and a terrible meal for dogs.” If this is the case, it was not done out of mercy but to expose his disgrace to passers-by more openly.

The Significance of the Nails

Spikes were used to pierce the person to the tree. In 1968, a bulldozer unearthed the skeletal remains of a man named “John” who had been crucified in a cemetery near Jerusalem:

“The feet were joined almost parallel, both transfixed by the same nail at the heels, with the legs adjacent; the knees were doubled, the right one overlapping the left; the trunk was contorted; the upper limbs were stretched out, each stabbed by a nail in the forearm” (cited in Lane, 565).

What the Cross Means

Prolonging the Victim’s Agony

The right tibia of the crucified man had been violently broken into large, sharp slivers, perhaps to accelerate his suffocation by making it nearly impossible to push himself up the vertical beam, an act required to maintain breathing (although this theory has been challenged by Frederick T. Zugibe in his article “Two Questions About Crucifixion,” in Bible Review [April 1989], 35-43).

It is false to say that a nail must enter the palm through the ulnar groove (an area between three bones) in order to break any bones and support hundreds of pounds. It is possible to crucify this individual by piercing his hand through the palmar sulcus. Although this man was nailed using a nail inserted through his forearm, it is feasible to do so via his palm, contrary to popular belief. If an iron nail goes into the hand via the thenar furrow (a space between three bones), it does not cause any fractures and can sustain tons of weight.

Sometimes a little peg or log, known as a sedecula, was inserted midway up the vertical beam, providing a seat of sorts. Its goal was to avoid early collapse and thus extend the suffering of the victim.

The Cause of Death on the Cross

For years, the precise cause of death has been a point of contention. D. A. Carson concludes:

“Whether tied or nailed to the cross, the victim endured countless paroxysms as he pulled with his arms and pushed with his legs to keep his chest cavity open for breathing and then collapsed in exhaustion until the demand for oxygen demanded renewed paroxysms. The scourging, the loss of blood, the shock from the pain, all produced agony that could go on for days, ending at last by suffocation, cardiac arrest, or loss of blood. When there was reason to hasten death, the execution squad would smash the victim’s legs. Death followed almost immediately, either from shock or from collapse that cut off breathing” (574).

Crucifixion as Capital Punishment

The hideous form of capital punishment is difficult to comprehend. Crucifixion was frequently used in the ancient world because it was believed to be an effective deterrent.

After winning the war against Spartacus, Crassus crucified 6,000 prisoners on the Appian Way between Capua and Rome (Bella Civilia, I.120). Before their final battle, Spartacus himself had a Roman captive crucified as a warning to his troops if they were defeated. It is strangely humorous that Julius Caesar was praised for being kind to his foes when he ordered their throats cut before the crucifixion in order to spare them from experiencing indescribable agony on the cross.

Siege of Jerusalem

Josephus wrote about the fate of the Jewish captives who were captured in 70 a.d. when Jerusalem was destroyed. The soldiers, “out of the rage and hatred they bore the prisoners,” nailed those they caught to crosses in various postures as a joke, and their number was so large that there wasn’t enough room for the crosses and not enough crosses for the bodies (Hengel 25-26). Titus, a Roman commander, hoped that this would pressure those still besieged in their city to surrender.

What the Cross Means

The Humiliation of Christ Jesus

The suffering and disgrace of the cross were far worse than the pain. See 1 Cor. 1:18-25. What is Paul’s meaning when he refers to the crucifixion as foolishness and a stumbling block? It isn’t due to its intellectual incoherence (like 2 + 2 = 5) or illogic. Christendom, on the other hand, saw Christianity as a Trojan horse delivering the message of salvation through faith in a crucified Savior. The cross was seen to be the epitome and emblem of the most repulsive human depravity, therefore it was deemed “foolishness” and a “stumbling block.” The cross was an insult to beauty. In other words, the cross was indecent.

The cross was far more than a device for executing people. It was a public sign of disgrace and social depravity. Crucifixion was created with the goal of more than simply killing a human being. Its aim was to humiliate him as well as break his body. There were certainly other, more expedient forms of execution: stoning (cf on Acts 7), beheading (cf on Acts 12), etc. Crucifixion had the dual purpose of both humiliation and harm.

Naked Before the World

Crucifixion was always a spectacle, and this is particularly true of the Roman period. In fact, the most obvious location was generally chosen, such as at a crossroads or on high ground in the theatre. It was intended to increase feelings of social and personal humiliation. Victims were typically crucified naked because Jewish customs called for it.

In the Bible, physical nudity was frequently a sign of spiritual disgrace and infamy. According to John Calvin, nakedness in Christ is “ignominious.”

“The Evangelists portray the Son of God as stripped of His clothes that we may know the wealth gained for us by this nakedness, for it shall dress us in God’s sight. God willed His Son to be stripped that we should appear freely, with the angels, in the garments of his righteousness and fulness of all good things, whereas formerly, foul disgrace, in torn clothes, kept us away from the approach to the heavens” (194).

The first Adam, originally created in God’s righteousness, was tainted by his transgression and made us naked. The final Adam, who Endures the shame of nudity through his submission, clothes us in the righteousness of God.

The “Foolishness” of a Crucified Savior

In their writing, the ancient evaluation of crucifixion is evident. Historians once thought that the scarcity of references to crucifixion in learned literary sources proved that it was seldom used. It has been proven more recently that the more accomplished literary artists avoided discussing crucifixion not because it was unknown, but rather because they did not want to sully or defile their work by mentioning such a brutal and disgusting practice.

In Greek epics and drama, the crucifixion of the hero/heroine was common, but in every instance, it was reversed and he or she was set free. To put it another way, heroes could not be permitted to experience such a dishonorable death. This is why the Greeks considered the idea of a crucified savior “clownish.”

Crucifixion was referred to as crudelissimum taeterrimumque supplicum, or “the most cruel and repulsive pain.” Because it taught Christ crucified, Pliny the Younger (112) called Christianity a “perverse and extravagant superstition” in his Epistulae (10.96.4-8). It was a “malignant superstition.”

What the Cross Means

The Cross Forbidden for Romans

The shame connected with crucifixion was so great that it was expressly forbidden to crucify a Roman citizen. Cicero stated, “It is absolutely forbidden for a Roman citizen to be put to death in the manner of the cross.”

“Even if we are threatened with death, we may die free men. But the executioner, the veiling of the head, and the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things or the endurance of them, but the liability to them, the expectation, nay the mere mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man” (Defence of Rabirius, 5,16).

A Symbol of Indignity

In the ancient world, the cross’s symbolic importance is also demonstrated in how corpses of men who were executed by some other method are often hung on a cross. There must be a reason for doing this other than to subject his name/reputation to the maximum possible social disgrace.

The Contradiction of a “Crucified Messiah”

The obscenity of the cross explains Paul’s early hostility towards the church and its Good News. Paul was “ravaging” the church (Acts 8:3; a term that literally means a wild beast attacking its prey, tearing flesh from bone); he was “breathing murderous threats” at the church (Acts 9:1); he “persecuted” the church to death (Acts 22:4); he was “furiously enraged” at the church (26:11); and he attempted to destroy it (1:13). Why?

It was not simply because the church maintained that Jesus was God Incarnate, or because of any perceived danger to Mosaic law or the Temple (although this charge was made; cf. Acts 6:13). The sticking point for Paul was that Jesus had been crucified. A messiah who has been crucified is a contradiction in terms. It’s possible to have a Messiah or a crucifixion, but you can’t have a Messiah who is also crucified! Crucifixion evoked images of power, majesty, and victory while the term “Messiah” suggested weakness, debasement, and defeat.

What the Cross Means

Crucifixion as Curse

“The corpse of a judicially executed criminal was hung up for public exposure that branded him as accursed by God,” according to Jewish law (Deut. 21:23). “The words were also applied in Jesus’ day to anyone crucified; and therefore the Jews’ demand that Jesus be crucified rather than banished was aimed at generating the greatest possible public aversion toward him,” writes Carson (574). (See Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; 1 Pt. 2:24; and especially Gal. 3:13, where reference to death on a “tree” is prominent.)

What Jesus had said to the disciples was, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe ALL things I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18). “Then he stretched out his hand toward his disciples and said, ‘These stones will serve as your foundation.’ And with this promise he blinded their eyes. ‘After a long time,’ says Peter [or Saul] in verse 15 [or 19], ‘the veil shall be rent from top to bottom.’ ’”

This was not just another prediction that failed to come true! It was an affirmation by Christians that he who is to enjoy God’s greatest blessing endured God’s most horrible curse. What kind of behavior could these Jewish people exhibit towards someone whom God himself had openly and clearly cursed? Worse still than a contradiction in terms, a crucified Messiah would be blasphemy! However, notice how early Christianity emphasized this very fact! See Acts 2:23; 4:9-12; 5:29-31.

What the Cross Means

The Crucifixion Offense

The offense of the cross originates from the fact that it was a visible symbol and physical embodiment of moral shame and aesthetic repugnance, yet it was used as the instrument of death for one who claimed to be the Messiah and Savior.

Jesus died not just to atone for our sins’ guilt, but also for the stigma of our sins!

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