Monday, April 13, 2009

What Is the History of the Cross?

For his Easter message, "The Final Hours" at, Andy Stanley opens by talking about the symbolism of the cross. The cross is such a familiar icon, but the difference between our associations with the cross is so extremely far removed from the association made in the first century. In some ways we really do a disservice to our faith by using the cross as a symbol. The significance of the cross is lost on us because crucifixions stopped centuries ago.

Interestingly, the cross did not become a symbol of Christianity for 300 years after Christ died! In fact, for a time following the crucifixion, it was against the law for Christians to draw a cross or to put it into the form of art because they knew how torturous a crucifixion was. There was nothing glamorous, romantic, artistic or spiritual about the cross. It is quite different today, but not in the first century. It was something you didn't look at. It was a symbol of suffering and shame; the degradation of humanity. If anything, men would protect their children from seeing such a site. The cross was used as a form of execution by Alexander the Great and for 300 years past Christ in the Roman empire. It became a symbol of mass execution. If you saw the movie "Spartacus", when the slave rebellion led by Spartacus was finally contained, they crucified his each of his troops and posted the crosses at the point of battle all the way down the road leading to Rome. It was a display of over 6,000 men hanging from the crosses. It wasn't a hidden execution or far away. Crucifixes where put up at main thoroughfares, such as major intersections, bridges and outside the marketplace. Rome wanted people to see what would happen to people who would rebel. Crucifixions were a billboard for the strength and might of the Roman empire. Romans were never crucified. Crucifixions were reserved for slaves and enemies of Rome.

So, crosses were certainly symbolically different back then than in our time. There were thousands and thousands of men crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem during the Jewish war around 60 or 70 AD. This was when Rome finally destroyed Jerusalem. On one particular day, over 500 people were crucified on a scaffolding. The Romans soldiers had to stop, at one point, because they ran out of wood. Crucifixions were extremely common, yet out of the thousands of crucifixions of their time, the reason the cross is a symbol to us to us today is because of one single crucifixion; that of our Lord Jesus Christ. Around 300 AD, after the elimination of the practice, we began using it as a testament to our faith and we now see the cross everywhere; even wearing it as jewelry.

If we take our understanding of the cross we know today and set it aside, we can focus on the cross as it was understood in Christ's time. Constantine said it was an embarrassment that our Savior died on a cross. Andy moves to the gospels saying that the amazing thing about these books is that the disciples wrote in as much detail as they could to document the greatest story ever told. They included everything they could remember about Christ's life and the crucifixion. While much is described about the ministry of Christ, when He was arrested, the story seemed to go into slow motion, describing much of the courts prosecution. The only way to have Jesus executed was to prove he was an enemy of Rome. The religious leaders had to pin on Jesus a crime, so they pulled in false witnesses. But the testimonies of the witnesses were inconsistent, so they were thrown out. All the while, Jesus waited in silence. Finally, the high priest asked a question that Jesus CHOSE to answer. It was if he waited to because He knew what would happen. The question was, "Are you the Messiah?" The high priest was asking if Jesus was the descendant of David; the King of the Jews. If Jesus said yes, He would be viewed as a threat to Rome.

Mark 15:2-25 continues the story. Pilate couldn't understand why Jesus would not defend Himself. Pilate was amazed. A lesser man would fall to his knees to beg for mercy, to beg for a quick death or to beg to be sold into slavery. Pilate tells Jesus that he has the power to free or crucify Him. Sensing Jesus is innocent, Pilate then begins to look for a way out. It so happend that the trial was taking place during Passover. On this holiday, Pilate would typically earn the favor of the people by releasing someone who was thought to be unjustly imprisoned. So Pilate came up with a plan. He would take someone who was dispised by the people; a man like Barabbas and Pilate would give the people the choice to crucify Barrabas or to crucify Jesus. But the hate of the religious leaders was so intense, it drove the the people to demand the crucifixion of Jesus. Pilot, still seeking to wash his hands of the matter, asked "Why? What crime has he committed?" But the people angrily demanded Jesus death.

So, Pilot had Jesus flogged. In the movie, the "Passion of Christ", it shows the incredible detail of what happens in a flogging. Many people would die at this point. In fact, as part of the flogging process, it was necessary to apoint someone to make sure the person being flogged didn't die. Pilot presented Jesus, after He had been flogged, back to the people, hoping this would be enough to satisfy them, but it wasn't. So, the guards took Jesus, beat Him, put a purple robe around him and placed a crown of thorns on His head, mocking him as the "King of the Jews". There was nothing spiritual, inspiring or romantic about it.
Beaten beyond recognition, Jesus was led to Golgotha, "the place of the skull" and was forced to carry the crossbeam of the cross. Along the way, he was offered wine mixed with myrrh whcih like being offered a narcotic, but Jesus refused it. When we get to the point of crucifixion in Mark, all the detail seems to stop. There was no elaborate description because there was no mystery of a crucifixion. The first century reader knew exactly what happened in a crucifixion. For us, we've never seen nails driven into someone's hands, watched the gasping for final breaths or watched someone bleeding to death.

They laid Jesus down on the crossbeam. The nails in His "hands" were actually driven through the wrist bones. He was then hung from the top of the cross. Now,there are eyewitnesses that were in Auschwitz who said that when the Germans would hang someone by their wrists, without any support from their feet, they would last for only about an hour. This is because you cannot fully exhale in this position. These same eyewitnesses said that if the feet were weighted down ,the victims would die within ten minutes. The Romans didn't want Jesus to die too fast, so they drove the nails into His feet so that He could lift a little higher to stay alive. For about 6 hours, Jesus hung there. He was crucified at roughly 9am and was gone around 3pm. Even in His last moments, Jesus said "into Your hands I commit my spirit", which was another statement of choice by Jesus to die.

Jesus died in the place of rebels and criminals because he chose to, not because others did. Whereas, the cross had been a symbol of punishment, for Christians, it is a symbol of choice by our Savior. CS Lewis once wrote, "the crucifixion did not become common in art until all who saw a real one died off." Jesus paid the price for our sins. This wasn't just any death, it was a horrible death. In Phil 2:8, Paul said that Jesus humbled Himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.

So, what do we do with this? The symbol of the cross just doesn't do justice to our faith. In the book of Acts, it explains the passion of the people who saw the ultimate price that was paid by their Messiah. For Andy, his response is that he wants to be even more obedient. Every time this story is told, something breaks in the hearts of those who hear it and who may be far away from our Savior. But we have to respond to the story. It is unavoidable and it stands in the middle of history as a reminder of God's love, our rebellion and our forgiveness.

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