The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ

In light of the New Testament’s emphasis on Jesus’s death by crucifixion, the question we must ask is, “Why the cross of Christ?”

This article on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ has been adapted from our 2022 Good Friday sermon, “We Preached Christ Crucified,” delivered by pastor Mitch Bedzyk.

On Good Friday we celebrate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the good news of his death for the sin of the world. But it’s not just his death we celebrate, it’s specifically his death on a cross. It’s the worship of a crucified man that makes Christianity unique among the world’s religion.

Jesus himself made the cross central when he called his followers to “take up their cross,” and the NT focuses not just on Christ’s death, but his crucifixion, as if the manner in which he died mattered. Paul says Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross (Eph. 2:8), and that he would only boast in the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14). In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul highlights the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18), “Christ crucified” (1:23), and that he “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2). Of course, the resurrection is equally important. The death and resurrection of Jesus are inseparable like peanut butter and jelly; you can’t have a PB&J sandwich without both. But the resurrection that Christians celebrate was the vindication of a crucified man who was condemned and rejected. What the apostle Peter proclaimed on Pentecost was and still is the most unique and shocking claim in the world: God has made this man both lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified (Acts 2:36).

But in light of the NT’s emphasis on the manner of Jesus’ death, the question I want us to reflect on tonight is not just “why did Jesus die” but, “Why did Jesus have to die this way? Why was he crucified?” In our text, it’s not merely Christ’s death but the cross that is offensive, foolish, and a “stumbling block” (skandalon). So what’s the deal with cross? Why not a dignified death like a beheading? If he’s the Lamb of God and the sacrifice for sin, why was he not killed like an OT sacrifice? Why was his blood shed this way? Why does God, the almighty Creator of heaven and earth, give himself up in the person of the Son, to arguably the most degrading, revolting, obscene, dehumanizing, and utterly vile way of putting a person to death ever devised by the sick and twisted human mind?

To answer this question and appreciate it fully, we must first consider the nature of the cross. It’s only as we understand what crucifixion actually was, that we will come to understand the true meaning of the cross, and why it is such good news.

The Nature of Crucifixion

Crucifixion is quite remote from us since it was banned by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Crosses, however, have become a familiar religious symbol and ornament. But in the first-century world, the cross was a symbol for state sponsored torture and the most horrific method of execution known. It was so vile that it was “off-limits” in Roman conversation. We can hardly begin to understand the depth of horror and humiliation for the victims of crucifixion. It was designed to cause unbearable pain, prolong death as long as possible, and be a deterrent to others. It was so vile that it was a death reserved for slaves and rebels, not Roman citizens.

The victim would be stripped completely naked, vulnerable and exposed for all the world to see. They would be scourged, then paraded through the city and out to the site of crucifixion. They would then be thrown on their lacerated back, and nailed to a wooden beam, hung up and left to die, suffocating under the weight of their own body. The only way to breathe would be to pushing yourself up by your legs or pulling yourself up by your arms. Unlike a beheading, electric chair, burning, or hanging, it was meant to last several days, allowing the victim to suffer through muscle cramps, thirst, and the loss of bodily functions.

But it was not only designed to be a warning to others or to cause unbearable pain and prolong death as long as possible. Crucifixion was specifically designed to humiliate, degrade, and dehumanize the victim.

Crucifixion…had as its express purpose the elimination of victims from consideration as members of the human race. It cannot be said too strongly: that was its function. It was meant to indicate…that crucified persons were not of the same species as either the executioners or the spectators and were therefore not only expendable but also deserving of ritualized extermination[1]

It was a public announcement: this person pinned up here is not one of you. This person deserves to be discarded like trash because they are no longer part of the human race. This is why the victims were hung low to ground on well-traveled roads, naked, and left to be eaten by birds, insects, and beasts. This way, they could endure the vicious ridicule of those passing by. Such degradation and rejection are captured in the words of Isaiah about the Suffering Servant of the Lord: “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,  and his form beyond that of the children of mankind (Isa. 52:14). “He was despised and rejected by men…as one from whom men hide their faces; he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isa. 53:3).

To the Jews, there was an additional layer of meaning. It would have been even worse because of what the Scriptures had to say about one hung on a tree:

If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance (Deut. 21:22–23).

According to Scripture, no other method of executing someone was ever explicitly said to be godforsaken. The crucified would be considered accursed and excluded not only from fellowship with others but from fellowship with the living God.

So, what did the cross mean to the first-century world? It was embarrassing, revolting, degrading. It was the ultimate sign of weakness, failure, helplessness, rejection, humiliation, and shame. To the Jews it meant being rejected, forsaken, and cursed by God. This is why Paul says that the message of the cross was considered offensive to the religious Jews and secular Greeks (1 Cor. 1:22-23). It ran completely counter to the ideas of God held by everyone in society. God would never have something to do with something so shameful and degrading!

For the Jews, Christ crucified was a contradiction that defied their expectations. Christ means conquering King and deliverer; crucified means tortured, humiliated, rejected, defeated, dead. For the Greeks, to say that an obscure man—raised by a poor family, whose friends deserted him,  whose own people rejected him and called for him to be tortured and humiliated in the worst way imaginable—had any relevance for their lives, and was the way of salvation, blessing, peace, and eternal life with God would be considered nonsense.

This is why the cross is still offensive and absurd our culture today. In a culture all about wisdom, status, and acclaim, identifying with a man who was killed in the most horrible, degenerating way possible, who died as a nobody, would be offensive and completely absurd. Suffering? Rejection? Shame? No thank you.

In a culture all about power and rights, identifying with a man who set aside his rights, used his power to serve others, laid down his life, turned the other cheek, and let his enemies “get away” with an unjust trial, execution, and public humiliation would be outrageous.

The Meaning of the Crucifixion of Jesus

So, why the cross? Why highlight these details about crucifixion? It’s not just to evoke pity for a good man died a shameful death. It’s to show us the depth, the horror, and the shameful reality of our sin. The answer to our question of why the cross is simply that no other manner of death could match humanity’s hopeless situation under the power of sin. Crucifixion is the most fitting death for the substitute and sacrifice for our sin. Fleming Rutledge summarizes this well:

Jesus’ situation under the harsh judgment of Rome was analogous to our situation under sin. He was condemned; he was rendered helpless and powerless; he was stripped of his humanity; he was reduced to the status of a beast, declared unfit to live and deserving of a death proper to slaves.[2]

The eternal Son of God, who knew no sin, was made to be sin for us. He entered our condition, and he identifies with us in our sin, our sorrow, our shame, our suffering, under God’s curse. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal 3:13).

God in the person of his sinless Son, willfully, joyfully, and graciously was cursed by God, on our behalf and in our place, because of his great love for us. In order to free us from our slavery to sin and death Jesus took the form of a slave literally by dying the death reserved for slaves on the cross (Rom. 6; Phil 2:7). We we were alienated from God’s people, without hope and without God in the world; and that’s exactly what Christ became for us on the cross (Eph. 2:12). This is why Jesus cries out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s not the cry of the eternal Son being separated from his Father. It’s the cry of the Son of Man, our representative, being forsaken by God; it’s the cry of our condition under Sin, in rebellion against God.

So, why the cross? because Jesus came to identify with humanity to the full. For as Gregory of Nazianzus, the famous fourth century bishop of Constantinople put it: what is not assumed is not healed. Jesus identified completely with our humanity so that he could heal us fully. “He has borne our griefs & carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:4-5).

Jesus was cursed so we could be blessed. He was rejected so we could be accepted by the Father. His blood was shed so we could be forgiven. He was cut off so we could be welcomed in. He died our death to bring us life. He died as a rebel and slave to free us and make us sons. That’s why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel. That’s why the church preached Christ crucified, Listen to how one pastor and historian describes the disciples of Jesus:

If ever mortal men found a real hero on this earth, those men were the disciples…[Think] of the horrid shock and shame which overwhelmed them at the Cross. It was no splendid martyrdom for a great cause, no glorious conquest won at the cost of life; no epic to be sung and celebrated. No, the cross was simply an utter overthrow, a speechless failure. It was all sordid, cruel, criminal, a gross injustice, an intolerable defeat of good by evil, of God by devils…He their hero, their chosen lead, he was numbered with the transgressors. He was cast out with a curse upon him. Think how loyalty would burn to right this wrong, to clear his memory, to save his reputation, to prove that gross outrage had been done to him, to magnify the life so that the death might be forgotten….But nothing of the kind seems to have occurred to the [disciples]. They literally glory in the Cross…They are clear, with an absolute conviction, that the best and most wonderful thing he ever did was…to die a felon’s death, between two robbers. It was their hero’s greatest heroism that he was executed as a common criminal.[3]

The disciples of Jesus gloried in the cross because they knew it was the only hope for our sin, suffering, slavery, and death. And the good news is that his resurrection from the dead is the ironclad proof that his sacrifice was accepted, our salvation was secured, and the powers of sin and death were decisively defeated. Now all those who come to Jesus, who repent of their sins and believe that Jesus both Lord and the Christ who came to die for our sin, can find full pardon, acceptance, and new life in Christ.

We Must Still Preach Christ Crucified

The world doesn’t like this message because it is devastating to human pride. It means admitting we are sinful and cursed, that we need rescuing, that we can’t save our ourselves from of our bondage to sin and the wrath of God.  And the church is constantly tempted to skip the cross and jump, as it were, straight to the resurrection. This is what all false gospels do.

  • The American gospel of health and wealth tempts us to place ourselves above the cross, as if suffering was something behind us or beneath us, rather than in the cross.
  • The Therapeutic gospel wants to downplay our sin, blame everyone else, and affirm our inherent goodness apart from Christ. There’s no room or need for the cross in this popular message.
  • The growing American gospel of political power tempts us to place ourselves beyond the cross by placing all our hope for our world in the right president, political party, and public policy.

But may we never move on from the cross. May we never be ashamed of the scandalous message of the Christ and him crucified. For in the seemingly offensive and foolish message of the cross, we not only see the depth of our sin, but the all-powerful, all-conquering, self-giving love of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

  1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015), 92.
  2. Rutledge, The Crucifixion, 102.
  3. Philip J. Rhinelander, The Faith of the Cross (1916), cited in Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (2016), 70-71.