What the Bible says about
(From Forerunner Commentary)
The Romans made an art form of crucifixion as a means of capital punishment after borrowing the idea from the Greeks and Phoenicians. The Babylonians, Persians, and Assyrians also used various forms of crucifixion, including impaling. The Jews thought it a most disgusting form of death. It was gory and very painful, often lasting for days. Roman citizens were usually exempted from crucifixion; they were beheaded for capital crimes.
In Jesus' day, crucifixion was considered so gruesome that it was reserved for slaves and the worst criminals or enemies of the state. Death usually took days unless the victim had been severely beaten or scourged first, which was often the case. To maximize the impact, crucifixions often occurred along public highways or other very visible areas, as lessons for all of what would happen to enemies of the state or incorrigibles.
The Romans usually left the bodies to rot or be eaten by scavengers. No doubt Jesus had seen the remains of many crucifixions as He traveled up and down Galilee and Judea. He knew He would someday experience it firsthand.
Why did Jesus have to die that way? Was there not a more humane way for Him to die for our sins? Were He an ordinary man, such questions might be relevant, but to be our Savior, He had to die in such a way. The Father had planned for specifically this type of execution because it so perfectly depicts so many things necessary for a full comprehension of sin and its horrors.
Why Did Jesus Have to Die by Crucifixion?
Commonly, crucifixion was carried out in one of two ways:
Two methods were followed in the infliction of the punishment of crucifixion. In both of these the criminal was first of all usually stripped naked, and bound to an upright stake, where he was so cruelly scourged with an implement, formed of strips of leather having pieces of iron, or some other hard material, at their ends, that not merely was the flesh often stripped from the bones, but even the entrails partly protruded, and the anatomy of the body was disclosed. In this pitiable state he was reclothed, and, if able to do so, was made to drag the stake to the place of execution, where he was either fastened to it, or impaled upon it, and left to die. (The Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., 1910, Vol. 7, p. 506)
The second method of crucifixion involved a stake with a crossbar to which the condemned individual's hands were tied or nailed.
In such a case, after the scourging at the stake, the criminal was made to carry a gibbet, formed of two transverse bars of wood, to the place of execution, and he was then fastened to it by iron nails driven through the outstretched arms and through the ankles. Sometimes this was done as the cross lay on the ground, and it was then lifted into position. In other cases the criminal was made to ascend by a ladder, and was then fastened to the cross. (ibid.)
The Bible does not specifically state which method the Romans used in the crucifixion of Christ. Most other sources suppose that they used a crossbar because they nailed an inscription above Jesus' head and that both His hands had been pierced by nails (John 20:25-27). However, this is far from conclusive proof; it cannot be proven how Christ was crucified because the biblical account gives insufficient evidence. Thus, we do not know how to represent properly the stake upon which Jesus died.
Does it matter? We must also consider if it is even appropriate to use the very tool that was used to kill our Savior as an emblem of our faith. If Jesus Christ had been killed by hanging, would we use a gallows or a noose as a symbol of our faith? If He had been beheaded, would we use a guillotine? Why should we parade the instrument of shame and death before the world and be proud of it? The New Testament shows that the fact that Christ was killed by crucifixion was an offense to some. "But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness" (I Corinthians 1:23).
Earl L. Henn (1934-1997)
The Cross: Christian Banner or Pagan Relic?
Psalm 22 begins with the exact words Jesus quoted when He was on the cross and all the sins of the world were put upon Him. The Father forsook Him because He cannot abide sin.
This was written about a thousand years before Christ died, and crucifixion was not practiced in the region at the time. The Romans brought this form of execution into prominence as a way to humiliate and dispose of their enemies. They would line the roads with stakes and crosses on which they would hang their enemies as an example for the rest of the world to see. Nevertheless, they did not start their murderous rush through the ancient Middle East and Europe until about the first century BC. So, roughly 900 years before it became common practice, David wrote about crucifixion.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Christ's Death, Resurrection, and Ascension
Descriptions of Roman crucifixion bear this out, and Christ's execution was no exception, apart from its brevity. Jesus was utterly exhausted, not just from lack of sleep, but also from the scourgings and beatings He had received (see Matthew 26:67; 27:26, 30; Luke 23:11). Having no strength to carry His cross, as was customary, another man, Simon of Cyrene, was compelled to do it for Him (Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26).
In addition, crucifixion often pulled its victims' bones out of joint, either from the jarring jolt of the stake plunging into its rocky posthole or from the full weight of the sagging body hanging from the cruelly driven nails in the hands and feet (or often in the wrists and ankles). That His heart was like melted wax, explains the Keil and Delitzsch Commentary, "recalls His burning anguish, the inflammation of the wounds, and the pressure of blood on the head and heart, the characteristic cause of death by crucifixion." Jesus, however, died, not of a broken or failed heart, but by exsanguination, that is, He bled to death, "as a lamb led to the slaughter . . . He poured out His soul unto death" (Isaiah 53:7, 12).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
David the Prophet
Jesus had to die a death that was excruciatingly painful. Why? To depict the horrible pain that sin causes. It would not have served God's purpose if He had died a painless death. The picture would have been incomplete.
Any criminal of that time would have despaired to learn he was to be crucified. Crucifixion was not only an execution, but also a method of torture. The Romans usually gave the victim an excruciating scourging first. Jesus was no exception. Before He ever touched His cross, He was scourged, beaten, and insulted.
Over the years we have heard quite a bit about the Roman lictor, the soldier charged with dispensing this dreaded punishment. He used a whip, often with imbedded pieces of metal, bone, or other sharp objects. Romans did not limit their lictors to the Israelite practice of "forty stripes save one," nor to striking just the victim's back. He would let the whip strike and wrap around every inch of the person's body until he was within an inch of death.
The prophet Isaiah prophesies how Jesus appeared after the scourging: "Just as many were astonished at you, so His visage [appearance, margin] was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men" (Isaiah 52:14). He goes on to say that He was "wounded [pierced through, margin] for our transgressions, He was bruised [crushed] for our iniquities" (53:5). Is it no wonder that the apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:8, "And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross."
Imagine yourself in Christ's situation, with the skin flayed off so that you could count your bones. Add to that the searing pain of huge nails being pounded into your hands and ankles as soldiers pinned you to the stake. Now add the emotional pain of being denied and forsaken by all your friends. Thank God for the many women who stood by Jesus at that moment of horror—Mary His mother, Mary Magdalene, and others (Matthew 27:55-56). On top of everything else, He had to endure the taunts and ridicules of those for whom He was dying.
Then Jesus experienced yet another horror for the first time: being forsaken by God in heaven. God dumped all the obnoxious sins of the world on Jesus and had to turn His back on Him who became sin for us (Isaiah 53:6, 10-12; I Peter 2:24). How hauntingly mournful it must have sounded to hear Jesus cry out, "'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?' that is, 'My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?'" (Matthew 27:46-47). At this point, Jesus learned what it felt like to be cut off from God because of sin.
The pain grew so great that when Jesus said He thirsted, the Roman soldiers at the foot of His cross offered Him a brew of "vinegar" or sour wine mixed with myrrh as a sedative (John 19:28-29; Mark 15:23). Jesus refused it, knowing He had to suffer pain as part of the picture of what sin does in our lives: It causes a lot of gruesome pain!
After a while on the stake, the condemned person found it difficult to breathe. He could help himself a little by bracing his body upward with his legs and knees, but once he could no longer do this, he slowly died by asphyxiation. To hasten death, the Roman executioners would sometimes break the victim's legs with a club—which they did to the two robbers (John 19:31-32). When they came to Jesus, they found Him already dead and so did not break any of His bones (verse 33; Psalm 34:20).
Jesus did not die of a broken heart, as some Protestants believe. He bled to death from dozens of wounds from the scourging and from the spikes driven through his limbs. A gaping spear wound in His side produced a flow of blood and water. He truly poured out his blood like water to cover our sins (Psalm 22:14; Ephesians 1:7; I John 1:7).
Jesus gasped, "It is finished" (John 19:30), and finally to the Father, who gave Him to us because He loved us so much, our Savior prayed, "Into your hands I commend My spirit" (Luke 23:46). So Jesus died with a quiet confidence that He had finished the work His Father had sent Him to do.
Why Did Jesus Have to Die by Crucifixion?
The second commandment forbids the use of any physical representation of something used in the worship of God. It prohibits anything that tries to represent divinity in a physical way, such as pictures or statues. The crucifix (an image of Jesus on the cross) certainly fits into this category. Even though the stated intent is for use as a remembrance of the crucifixion, God commands us not to use any image or likeness in our worship of Him.
The cross has been used as a religious symbol since long before the crucifixion of Jesus. It originated in the Babylonian mystery religions, where it was a symbol of the god, Tammuz. In his book The Two Babylons, Alexander Hislop summarizes the universality of the cross by saying that “there is hardly a pagan tribe where the cross has not been found.” The cross did not even become associated with nominal Christianity until the time of Constantine, centuries after the crucifixion. And while the Scriptures refer to the cross metaphorically, the apostolic church never made use of it in a physical way.
In addition to the pagan origin, the question is still unresolved exactly what Jesus died on. The Greek word translated as “cross” is stauros, meaning a stake or upright pole. It may have had a cross-beam on it, or it may have simply been a long piece of wood, thick enough to bear the weight of a human body. Adding to the mystery are four scriptures asserting that Jesus was hung on atree (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; I Peter 2:24), and the Greek indicates a green, living tree rather than a stauros of dead wood. Because of this, one possibility is that the stauros of Jesus was just the crossbeam, which was attached to a living tree.
But the traditions of nominal Christianity have memorialized the pagan cross. To add insult to injury, millions venerate the means of death of the Messiah through their physical representations, rather than commemorating His death as He commanded, through the annual observance of the Passover (see I Corinthians 11:24-25). Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus Christ despised the shame of the cross in order to become our Savior, yet nominal Christianity both memorializes that shame in an image and turns it into a good-luck charm.
In studying Christ's instructions for taking up or bearing our stauros, it is clear that He did not intend for us to have anything to do with a physical crucifix, any more than He intended for us literally to pluck out an eye or cut off a hand to avoid sin (see Matthew 5:29-30). Rather, the use of the cross stands for a much larger concept that cannot—and should not—be crammed into a mere icon.
The Jews living under Roman dominion were all too familiar with crucifixions. When they saw a man carrying a stauros, it could only mean that his time on earth was essentially finished; they knew that man was as good as dead. So when Jesus told His followers to take up their crosses, they also were to account themselves as already being dead. What life remained was given over to the control of another, symbolizing complete surrender, while pointing to the encumbered life of a disciple.
David C. Grabbe
What Does It Mean to Take Up the Cross?
1 Peter 2:24-25
The most brutal example of divine justice is found in the New Testament, not the Old. We see the most violent expression of God's wrath and justice in the crucifixion of His own Son. If anybody had room to complain that He was not being treated fairly, it was Jesus Christ, who was not guilty of even one sin! He was the only innocent person who ever lived, yet He suffered a horrible, cruel death. If we were to become upset or offended at something that seems to be unjust, this would be it.
The crucifixion, similar to the Flood, the casting out of the Amorites, and so forth, is simultaneously the most just and the most gracious act in history. It would have been absolutely diabolical of God to punish Jesus if His Son had not first voluntarily taken on Himself the sins of all the world. Even though He was innocent to that point, once He took upon Himself that concentrated load of sin, He became the most repugnant thing that ever existed on earth before God. He became an obscene and accursed thing, and God executed His wrath. He acted in total impartiality. God could not overlook sin, even when it touched His Son.
Jesus Christ did this for us. Christ took the justice that was to fall on us, and He paid for it with His priceless life. It is the "for us" aspect that displays the majesty of the grace of God.
We cringe at God's justice because it is so unusual, since most of the time He is so gracious. Human nature deceives us into taking it for granted, but we need to keep it in mind because it just as integral to His character.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Justice and Grace
Find more Bible verses about Crucifixion:
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