Has a more terrible way to die ever been devised by man’s cruel imagination? Yet the early Christians not only admitted that their founder Jesus had died in this contemptible manner; they also boasted about it. The apostle Paul says, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Jesus Christ.” Indeed, this was the heart of what Paul saw as the Christian message.
When we think of the cross, we are not immediately to think of a pretty symbol. I think that’s a great danger: to think of it as a glamorized or bejeweled symbol that might adorn a person’s neck or home. Rather, we are to associate it in our mind with torture, with unrelieved thirst, with ridicule and, of course, with blood—much blood. It was never a “pretty” thing. Note how the Roman orator Cicero described crucifixion:
It is the most cruel and shameful of all punishments. Let it never come near the body of a Roman citizen. Indeed, let it never come near his thoughts or eyes or ears or the very word pass from his lips.
To the statesman and philosopher Cicero, talking about crucifixion was rather like mentioning the gas chambers in Germany in the postwar 1950s. It just wasn’t done. This is how the Encyclopedia Britannica in its latest edition describes crucifixion, and I think you’ll agree that even the scholarly detachment of this learned volume can’t conceal the barbarous cruelty that characterized this method of execution:
In the penal systems of the ancient world, it was an important method of capital punishment, particularly among Persians, Seleucids, Jews, Carthaginians and Romans. Usually the condemned man, after being whipped, dragged the crossbeam to the place of punishment where the upright shaft was already fixed in the ground. There he was stripped of his clothing and bound fast with outstretched arms to the crossbeam, or nailed firmly to it through the wrists. The crossbeam was then raised high against the upright shaft and made fast to it about nine to twelve feet above the ground. Next, the feet were tightly bound or nailed to the upright shaft. A ledge, inserted about halfway up the upright shaft, gave some support to the body. Evidence for a similar ledge for the feet is rare. Over the criminal’s head was placed a notice stating his name and crime. Death apparently caused by exhaustion or heart failure could be hastened by battering the legs with an iron club, but the medical reasons for death are not fully understood. It was thought to be a suitable punishment chiefly for political or religious agitators, pirates, slaves, or those who had no civil rights.
There is, of course, another word derived from the Latin word crux (cross): excruciating. Has a more terrible way to die ever been devised by man’s cruel imagination? Yet the early Christians not only admitted that their founder Jesus had died in this contemptible manner; they also boasted about it. The apostle Paul says, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Jesus Christ.” Indeed, this was the heart of what Paul saw as the Christian message.
How ridiculous that must have seemed—not only to Nero but to the average person in the street in those early days—is rather poignantly illustrated by a little drawing that archaeologists discovered while excavating the Palatine hill in Rome some years ago. Found in the former living quarters of page boys who served the imperial court, the picture depicts in rather crude and amateurish style a youth raising his hand in salute to a figure hanging on a cross. This figure on the cross bears an ass’s head, and underneath in rather poor lettering is scrawled the inscription: “Alexamenos worships his god.” It’s clearly a sarcastic jibe directed at one of the young imperial servants who had become a Christian. This crude picture is the earliest crucifix discovered so far; it is not an object of veneration but a cartoon of contempt. The very idea of a crucified god was a joke in the first century—and a sick and infantile joke at that. Nobody in Jesus’ day would have dreamed of wearing a cross around their neck as a symbol of piety or making the sign of it on their babies as they were baptized. It would have been considered in the worst possible taste.
Yet the early Christians boasted in this symbol. To me, this was not an embarrassing postscript to the life of their religious hero. No, it was the very pivot of their message. They cried, “We preach Christ crucified!” So for them this universal symbol of loathing, this taboo, was somehow transformed into a badge of honor, which in time would shape Christian architecture, inspire Christian hymns, and most of all fire Christian preaching. How can that be? What on earth was achieved at the cross? Why did Jesus submit to such an awful form of death?
It’s clear if you read through the Gospels, particularly John’s Gospel. Here we see that Jesus could have gone another way. He didn’t have to go up to Jerusalem. Although he knew that those who sought his death were waiting for him, he deliberately went there. He didn’t have to tolerate Judas Iscariot in his inner circle of disciples; he knew from the earliest days that this man was a traitor, yet he deliberately kept Judas in his confidence. He didn’t have to expose himself to the risk of easy capture. He knew his enemies would try to arrest him after dark in a secluded place, separated from the crowds who followed him. But he went to the Garden of Gethsemane, having already informed Judas where he was going, and he did all this when it was dark and there were no crowds around him. He didn’t have to remain silent before Pilate. The Gospels make it clear that he could have spoken in his own defense and that Pilate would have been willing to hear him, for Pilate seemed to have real sympathy for him. But Jesus didn’t say a word. So why did he do all this? He who raised others from the dead surrendered himself to death and made no attempt to escape it.
And what a painful, agonizing death he chose. Plainly, he planned it. Definitely, he planned it. In fact, Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “Nobody takes my life from me. I give it up of my own free will.” In fact, on a number of occasions, his disciples tried to dissuade him. They could see that he was set in some way upon dying, because he said to them, “I’m going to Jerusalem, and there I must suffer many things and the authorities will kill me.” He made that promise, and then he resolutely set out toward Jerusalem. When Peter, the most impetuous of the disciples, heard him, he insisted that it must not be so. Do you know what Jesus said to him? “Get behind me, Satan! You’re an obstacle in my way.” Jesus was clearly under some inner compulsion to die.
To understand his death, I want to focus on three words here from John 19:30, “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” It is finished. Those are the three words, though in the Greek, it’s only one word: tetelestai.
In our day, we like to talk about famous last words. Nineteenth-century British prime minister William Gladstone’s last words supposedly were “I feel a lot better.” The young duke of Wellington, when he was told he was on the verge of death, said, “Die? That’s the last thing I’m going to do.” (He did.) And Oscar Wilde is reported to have said as he lay dying in a Parisian hotel room, “That wallpaper is killing me. One of us will have to go.” For us, however, Jesus’ famous last words were “It is finished!” But this is not a last desperate self-pitying cry of surrender. He doesn’t cry out, “I am finished!” No, he says, “It is finished!”