Why the Cross?
As we reflect on what Jesus experienced as he went to and hung from the cross, we may wonder why he had to suffer such a horrific form of death. We probably understand why Jesus had to be both God and man and had to die -- only a fellow human could take our place for the punishment we deserve, and only God Himself could have lived the righteous life we were commanded to live (see Hebrews 4:15 and 7:24-25). However, could Jesus have died some other way as opposed to this painful, excruciating, and humiliating form of death? Is there something inherently important about the cross that led to Jesus dying there as opposed to being stoned to death by an angry mob like Stephen was in Acts 7? As I pondered these questions, I remembered the Heidelberg Catechism highlights some important ideas of the crucifixion that can point us to why the form of Christ’s death is significant.
The Official Nature of the Cross
Jesus’s death was a miscarriage of justice as he was executed without a true charge, and the proceedings by both the Jewish leaders and in the Roman court would prompt many appeals in our day and age. We need to remember, however, that his death was not an act of the people, but via a decree from the Roman ruler. The angry mob called for his death, but unlike what happened to Stephen, the rulers, not the crowd, put him to death. The Heidelberg Catechism notes the importance of this as it discusses the phrase “under Pontius Pilate” in the Apostles’ Creed in Q and A 38:
Q: Why did he suffer “under Pontius Pilate” as judge?
A: So that he, though innocent, might be condemned by an earthly judge, and so free us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us.
Jesus’s death resulting from the sanction of the government means that he has been condemned; therefore, we can say that he has taken the condemnation for us. Because Pilate both condemned Jesus and noted his innocence, we have assurance that Jesus truly was a righteous man, and because Jesus has been condemned, there is now no condemnation for us when we are in him (Romans 8:1). God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us so that we can become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The Shame of the Cross
Death by crucifixion was a public spectacle ordered by the rulers. By that, I mean it was done publicly to both shame the victim and to show the people what would happen if they committed a similar crime. Therefore, it was not only a form of execution, but also of humiliation -- it was an ignoble form of death! In addition to this imagery that was found in the death by Roman officials, crucifixion was also viewed by Jews as a sign that one was cursed by God, as the law given to Israel from God said that “a hanged man is cursed by God” (Deuteronomy 21:23). This is why Paul says the cross is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Other forms of execution did not bear this same stigma, which leads the Heidelberg Catechism to say this in Q and A 39:
Q:Is it significant that he was “crucified” instead of dying some other way?
A: Yes. By this I am convinced that he shouldered the curse which lay on me, since death by crucifixion was cursed by God.
The Catechism here draws upon Paul’s point in Galatians 3 as he says “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Being crucified means that Jesus takes our shame, and also the curse of God that should fall upon us for our sins will now fall upon him. We are not cursed by God and can stand before him without shame when we trust in Jesus and claim his death in our place.
The Choice of the Cross
Not only did we need Jesus to die to take our place and pay our punishment, but it seems like the cross was the way that it needed to happen. When we discuss the cross, it is also important for us to know that Jesus chose to go there for us -- it was the unified choice of the Triune God, not the angry Father sending the Son there. Jesus himself said, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:18) and as the Son of Man he came to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul tells us that Jesus “gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2).
Jesus willingly went to the cross, experienced the pain and agony of the cross and bore the weight of our sins. The question we must ask ourselves is if we will take up our cross and follow him, as in his death and our death, we find true life in him. As Paul writes in Romans 6:5-7:
“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.”
May we reflect on those words as we journey from the cross to the empty tomb this week.
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