The familiarity of the cross is unfortunate. Celebrities would never wear an electric chair around their neck, but that’s what the cross was—a gruesome punishment for capital crimes. In fact, crucifixion was the result of many years of ingenuity. Barbaric cultures teamed together to invent the most painful, shameful, and unspeakable way to torture a criminal, which at the same time detoured future criminals from making the same mistake. It was first invented by the Persians, who used to impale victims of a conquered city on long, sharp poles shoved in the ground outside the city’s walls. Impalement was
sometimes replaced with nailing a victim to a near by tree and left for dead. Thus the foundation for crucifixion was laid. In time, the two methods were combined and soldiers would pin their victims to long, wooden posts in the place of trees.
Other nations joined in the fun. Parthinians, Greeks, and Phoenicians found crucifixion to be an effective way to brutalize their enemies. But it was Rome who took what the Persians invented and perfected it. First, they added scourging to the mix. Prior to crucifixion, Roman soldiers would lash the victim with leather whips embedded with metal balls or sharp pieces of sheep bone. The lacerations would flay the victim’s back, until his muscles were pulverized and his ribs were exposed. Sometimes the pain and blood loss were too great, and the criminal would die before making it to the cross.
Second, Rome improved upon Persia’s single pole crucifixion by adding the cross-shaped post that we know of today—the same one used on Jesus. Rome had set up many permanent posts around major cities, especially those that were prone to revolt, like Jerusalem. When a criminal was crucified, they would first be forced to carry the horizontal crossbeam on his shoulders (about 100 pounds) through the streets of the city to the place where the vertical post stood. His wrists were then pinned to the crossbeam with a six-inch spike and then the criminal and the crossbeam were hoisted up to the permanent post, secured either by rope or a mortise and tendon joint. Then, the victim’s feet were nailed to the base of the cross, either through the foot or through the ankle, as one archaeological discovery has revealed.
Back flayed, wrists pierced, muscle and bone exposed, blood steadily gushing out. Not the sort of thing one wants to hang as an ornament around the neck. Still, we do.
But this is only the beginning.
Thanks to adrenal glands, the human body can endure more pain than you think. Most often, death would come slowly, though each minute on the cross felt like eternity. Since the crucified was hanging from spikes, breathing was tremendously difficult. To gather a breath, he would have to push down on his pierced feet, but this can only last so long. So in order to prolong the torture, Rome had added a new feature to the cross: a small seat half-way up the cross to give the victim a source of rest and to make breathing easier. Their intention wasn’t to dull the pain, but to prolong it. Just when the victim couldn’t endure one more painful attempt to suck in another breath, human reflex and the will to survive would force him to sit—to hang on to the thread of life as long as he could. And remember, his hamburgered back inched up and down the splintery wood with each agonizing breath. Thirty times a minute, 1,800 times an hour—in the case of Jesus, for six hours.
Crucifixion was so horrific that Roman authors rarely talked about it. Cicero, the Roman statesmen, called it “the most cruel and disgusting penalty.” Josephus said it was “the most wretched of deaths.” So monstrous was crucifixion that Roman citizens were exempt. Instead, the cross was reserved for those on the lowest rung of the social ladder: slaves, insurrectionists, and soldiers that committed treason. And when some authorities raised the question whether Roman citizens should not be exempt, the rest were appalled. Such barbarism should only be reserved for the dregs of society.
Death came from various causes. Sometimes it was loss of blood. Other times it was suffocation, as the victim lost all strength to take one more breath. In some cases, the victim left on the cross was slowly eating by wild animals in the night. Jesus was spared this most unfortunate form of death. Instead, he probably drowned in the pool of blood that filled his lungs.
Since we live in a culture that is allergic to pain, we often focus on the bodily torment Jesus endured. But the Mediterranean culture was an “honor-shame” culture, where public shame was the greater horror (Heb 12; 1 Pet 2). And this was the primary design of the cross. It was intended to shame the victim, his family, his friends, and anyone who followed him. This is why criminals were crucified on the highways outside the city gates where all could see. This is why the victim was stripped naked for all to see. This is why a multi-lingual sign was secured above the cross, inscribed with the victim’s crimes. And this is why most crucified victims, contrary to popular depictions, stood only a few feet above the ground. This way, the populace could nearly come face to face to the criminal—a perfect spot to hurl insults and phlegm.
Such is the narrative of love.
Jesus could have been beheaded like his cousin John, or he could have been stoned to death. As long as He died as the perfect sacrifice, God’s wrath would have been satisfied and forgiveness would have flowed freely. But God wanted to do more than just satisfy his wrath and forgive our sin. He wanted to make the depth of our sin and the depth of His love undeniable. He wanted it to be crystal clear that he will go to unfathomable lengths to hunt us down and reconcile us to Himself. He wanted to enjoy, once again, that Edenic relationship He so craves. And for this, He chose the cross.
Hebrews tells us that it was “for the joy that was set before him” that Jesus “endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). The joy of being reconciled and reunited with his image-bearing-masterpieces-turned-enemies, who deserve wrath, not forgiveness; justice, not grace, is what kept Jesus going. Through every slash of the whip, every pound of the nail, every agonizing breath, every shameful insult hurled from the mouths of his beloved enemies—it was “for Jesus’ stubborn delight set before him” that he “endured the cross.” Of all the ways in which God could have demonstrated his love for you, he chose the cross. The ingenuity of the Persians, barbaric improvements of the Romans, the wood, spikes, hammers, splinters, and crown of thorns picked from Eden, are all woven into the tapestry of grace as the only fitting way to capture God’s love for his image bearers.
This is why you can’t make God love you.
God loves you because of God. And there’s nothing you can do to earn it. There’s nothing you can do to sustain it. God acted in Jesus out of his own freedom to descend into a feeding trough and spread his arms across a splintery beam of wood. It was Jesus’ declaration, “it is finished!” that made God love you.