Today, Christians wear lavish, golden crosses around their necks, and decorate their homes with the same wooden icons. Almost every church in the world has this symbol displayed front and center for all to see.
But 2,000 years ago, the cross wasn’t something to display; rather, it was to be feared.
The Jews hated crucifixion; their preferred system of capital punishment was stoning. The Romans, who administered crucifixion, wouldn’t even allow their own people to suffer the dreaded death. Crucifixion was reserved for the vilest and most hated criminals of the Roman Empire.
On the day of His crucifixion, Jesus was already greatly weakened by the severe beatings and floggings He’d undergone during the night. Unlike Jewish floggings, Roman scourging had no legal limit. Jesus’ body was already shredded from the brutal scourging so lethal that it was referred to as the “half-death” (because about half the victims died from the beating before crucifixion happened).
The medically trained “lictors” would strike the victims with a device known as the “horrible flagellum.” It was a short whip-like instrument that had several leather straps attached to it. The straps were knotted up, and often times had lead balls and bone fragments tied into them. The balls would bruise the human flesh and the bones would tear it open. This is the inhumane device used on Jesus.
With the sentence of crucifixion made public and final, Jesus’ hands would have been tied to a wooden crossbeam known as the “patibulum,” and He would have carried it down the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering. According to tradition, this twisted, winding path got the better of Jesus, and He fell. This is probably true; even the Gospels say that He was so weak He couldn’t carry His own cross. Thus, the Romans forced a pilgrim named Simon of Cyrene to carry it for Him.
Upon reaching the Place of the Skull – Golgotha in Greek and Calvary in Latin – they would have thrown His naked body back onto the patibulum and driven nails through His wrists. The palms of the hands could not support the weight of a person’s body, plus, by spiking the wrists, the Roman torturers could aggravate the median nerve sending a never-ending trail of fire up and down the victim’s arms.
After He was properly fastened to the crossbeam, the Romans would have raised Him up onto one of the vertical beam called “stipes” using a system of ladders and pulleys. There, Jesus’ body would have received a terrible jolt when His crossbeam finally dropped into place on top of the vertical beam sticking out of the ground.
Though the arms were nailed at a 90-degree angle to the body, the body would sag during the course of the crucifixion. The weight of the body hanging on itself caused severe breathing difficulties. The pectoral muscles became paralyzed, and soon, the victim discovered he could breathe in, but not out. Thus, the usual cause of death in crucifixion was asphyxiation and shock from loss of blood.
To prevent this quick death on the cross, the Roman guards would nail the victim’s feet to the vertical beam. The guards typically put one foot on top of another and drove a metal spike through the feet’s second metatarsal and into the wooden beam. Now, the victim had a cruel “step” upon which to stand. The Romans had discovered that if a victim’s feet were nailed to the cross, he would die much more slowly. In fact, well-trained Roman soldiers could predict a criminal’s death within 4 hours just by looking at the angle made by the bend in the knees. The Gospels tell us that Jesus’ feet were nailed to the cross; thus, His agony would be prolonged.
Rome wanted this self-proclaimed King to pay deeply for His crimes.
This “step” would come in handy after tetany set in. Tetany brought on cramps and contractions within the muscles because the victim could neither breathe in enough oxygen nor expel the buildup of carbon dioxide in his lungs. Pushing himself up on the “step,” the victim could bring his arms back to a 90-degree angle and gasp for another breath of air.
Victims of crucifixion would often face the jeers of crowds in addition to their physical torture. Jesus was no exception to this circumstance; He was ridiculed by Jewish leaders, Roman soldiers, and even one of the other criminals hanging there with Him.
Toward the closing hours of the criminal’s punishment, muscles would begin involuntarily cramping. Loss of blood – and restricted blood flow – brought on headaches and sometimes convulsions. Perspiration would sap the body of needed fluids and dehydration would become extreme, often leaving the victim with an intense thirst.
Finally, as the criminal hung in the air with open sores exposed, insects – and sometimes birds – would be attracted to the smell of blood.
All of this suffering would continue until the criminal died.
It’s hard to look at jewelry, bumper stickers, and bracelets the same way after knowing the real experience of the cross. The Apostle Paul knew it well and that’s why he penned such profound words in Philippians 2:4-11.
Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus has bore His cross. Now He’s asking us to do the same.
The Mind of Christ by T.W. Hunt. B&H Publishing, 1995, Pages 112-115.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)