Cross Culture (John 19:17-36)
Reflections on John 19:17-36
The cross is a familiar icon in the West. From topping church spires to adorning jewelry, this symbol pervades our society. What if, however, instead of putting on a cross necklace, someone decided to wear an electric chair or a lethal injection syringe? We may glare aghast at them with a look of bemused curiosity. We have forgotten how awful crucifixion was. Though the cross bears a glorious message for the world, its potency arises from how its lethal horror contrasts with the famous man who died upon its wooden beams. When I see tiny crosses glinting off people’s throats, three questions come to mind: What exactly was the horror of crucifixion? How did Romans and Jews view it? Why does it inspire such a wealth of hope?
A Horrifying End
Roman society is infamous for its torture and execution techniques. They employed stoning, burning, strangling, and boiling in oil. Crucifixion, however, was one of their favorites. When a criminal, usually a low-born insurgent, was convicted and chosen for this execution, he was brutally tortured with whips and clubs. After, he was nailed or tied to transecting wooden beams (other shapes, such as a single pole or an X, have been attested to by ancient sources) and left to hang until he died.
The wait for death was excruciatingly long. Victims hung on the cross for hours, sometimes days, until they perished. Passersby would be forced watch as these naked and humiliated individuals lingered on their slow slog to death (often through asphyxiation). Not only was the convict’s life ended, but he also became a public spectacle for all to see; his life, and death, pronounced a stark message about the consequences of disobedience.
A Political Spectacle—The Roman Perspective
Crucifixion was intended to pacify rebellion through sheer terror; any ambition counter to Rome ended on the cross’s transecting beams. After a failed slave revolt, the Roman general Crassus hunted down and crucified 6,000 of Spartacus’ followers. Similarly, Jewish historian Josephus recounts how Caesar’s forces crucified Judaean rebels after Jerusalem fell. He writes,
"The soldiers out of rage and hatred, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest.”
While this execution method was effective in quelling uprisings, its sheer brutality was reserved for the social groups most likely to rebel—slaves, paupers, and subjected foreigners. Roman citizens, in contrast, were exempt from it. The renowned Roman orator and statesman Cicero wrote,
"It is a crime to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge him is a wickedness; to put him to death is almost parricide. What shall I say of crucifying him? So guilty an action cannot by any possibility be adequately expressed by any name bad enough for it.”
High-born citizens were so disgusted by crucifixion that any mention of it at dinnertime was expressly forbidden. The cross was a horror most Romans tried to push out of their minds.
Cursed by God—A Jewish Perspective
For Jewish society, crucifixion was a constant threat. Though they had an uneasy accord with Rome—the Jews pledged to pray for Caesar and they in turn wouldn’t have to sacrifice to him or call him a god—both sides tested the boundaries. For example, Herod once tried to install the imperial eagle in the Jerusalem temple. Outraged Jews conspired to tear it down as Herod lay dying. Much to their chagrin, the hated monarch recovered and had the saboteurs burned. In another instance, Judas of Galilee led a rebellion against a Roman census in 6 AD. After his uprising failed, many of his followers were crucified. Jews looked on with horror at these spectacles. As they gazed with disgusted terror, Deuteronomy 21:23 may have come to mind:
“You must not leave the body hanging on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”
For the Jewish onlooker, any one who died on the cross was cursed and abandoned by God.
How Does the Cross Give us Hope?
When Jesus was nailed to the cross, Romans and Jews would have gawked at him with derision and disgust. To the Romans, he was a failed rebel. To the Jews, he was cursed by God. Despite, all this, he endured the terror of crucifixion, ultimately defeating sin and death. To demonstrate his satisfaction with Christ’s work on Calvary, God raised Jesus from the dead on Easter Sunday. The punishment meant to end ambition and show a man cursed by God ended up becoming our symbol of victory. So, by wearing or parading around the cross, we make a mockery of the very instrument meant to end lives and hopes. Because Christ has conquered sin and death, we can heap shame on this instrument of brutality and all it represents. With this symbol in hand, we can boldly declare, “Death, you are a dying fool because Christ was crucified and he is risen.”
Footsteps—putting feet on our faith
How did the Romans and Jews understand crucifixion?
Why does our society see it so differently?
What does the cross mean for us personally?
Dear God, you were willing to endure the most brutal form of torture and execution man had yet to invent. And you did it for me. I will never fully grasp that magnitude of that sacrifice or love, but I know that by it I am forgiven. Because of your death and resurrection, I will one day live forever. Thank you. By Christ I pray, amen.