Ever done a study of capital punishment? I know it’s a rather morbid subject, but it is something to think about. Throughout human history people have been executed for many reasons and in various ways. For instance, in the Middle-ages people were beheaded and burned at the stake for serious crimes but also for religious reasons.
During the time of the French Revolution many unfortunate people were summarily executed. In 1789, a medical doctor named Joseph-Ignace Guillotin who became alarmed by the crudeness of how executions were carried out, proposed using a machine that would make it quicker and more humane. It became known infamously as the “Guillotine.”
Later methods for executing criminals, spies, and traitors included hangings, firing squads (a method still used in some states on repentant Mormon criminals who request it), electric chairs (a method that did not always work), and lethal gas chambers. Today, most states still having the death penalty use lethal injection because it is regarded as the safest (?), most painless, and most humane method now available.
Obviously, one of the biggest debates regarding the American justice system today is over capital punishment. I know good people and many Christians disagree on the matter. Nonetheless, the Bible clearly sanctions it for certain heinous crimes, especially murder (see Genesis 8:6). But that issue is not our concern here.
In this installment in our series on “Why Should I Believe?” we will go back to the time of the ancient Romans who used what was one of cruelest forms of execution ever devised: crucifixion. Crucifixion was the nailing or strapping of a criminal on a wooden pole and leaving him to die slowly in the sun. It was also a common form of execution by the Romans against insurgents and army deserters. It was regarded as so cruel that it was forbidden to be used on Roman citizens.
Naturally, when we think of crucifixion we usually think of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. That cross became, and is now, the universally recognized symbol of Christianity. That’s the main reason atheists and some non-Christian religionists hate it and want it removed from public display wherever they can force the issue.
Muslims, for instance, deny Jesus was ever crucified at all. In Islam, Jesus is considered a great prophet and Muslims don’t see how he could have died in such a demeaning and shameful manor. They contend that someone else must have died in His place.
Most cults also do not use crosses as their symbols. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses never put crosses on Kingdom Halls or allow their members to wear them as jewelry. They teach that Jesus was not crucified on a cross at all, but He was “impaled on a torture stake” with His hands nailed together above His head.
Mormons, on the other hand, do believe Jesus died on a cross. Nevertheless, they do not display crosses on their buildings – probably to distinguish themselves from what they call “traditional Christianity,” which they still officially regard as apostate.
An interesting side-light to this matter is that Roman Catholics commonly display “crucifixes” in their churches and homes. A crucifix is a cross with an image of Jesus hanging upon it. They are used in conjunction with the sacrament of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper). According to Catholic teaching, by the miraculous process of transubstantiation, when the bread and wine are ingested they literally become the body and blood of Jesus. Thus Jesus is essentially re-crucified each time the Eucharist is taken.
Since the Reformation, Protestants and Evangelicals have been reluctant to use such images of Jesus. And, not having the same literal sacramental meaning for the Lord’s Supper, normally do not display Him on the cross but prefer it standing empty. They also see the empty cross as symbolizing Jesus’ resurrection.
Now all that being said, it leads to a couple of vexing questions. First, “Just why is the Cross so important?” Secondly, “Why should we believe in the crucifixion of Christ, anyway?”
In this article we will explore five reasons why we should believe in the crucifixion of Jesus and why it is of utmost importance in the plan of God for man’s redemption.
Reason 1 – The Crucifixion Was Prophesied in Scripture.
One of the most intriguing passages of the Old Testament is Psalm 22. It was written by David and clearly provides a vivid description of someone dying a painful death. Here are few verses from that Psalm that are especially relevant.
“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (vs. 1 NASB)
Where have you heard that before? Of course, Jesus quoted it while he was on the Cross (see Matthew 27:46).
But I am a worm and not a man, a reproach of men and despised by the people. (vs. 6 NASB)
Jesus was certainly reproached and hated by the crowd who called for His execution.
12 Many bulls have surrounded me; strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me. 13 They open wide their mouth at me as a ravening and a roaring lion. (vss. 12-13 NASB)
Jesus was surrounded by Roman soldiers who were like “Bulls” and mocked Him like a “ravening and roaring lion.”
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within me. (vs. 14 NASB)
This verse describes Jesus’ anguish and suffering. His “bones (were) out of joint.” Jesus’ arms stretched out on the cross pulling His shoulders out of joint. He was “poured out like water” and His “heart is like wax” and “melted.” Jesus’ heart burst and that’s why water and blood flowed from his body when he was speared in the side by the Roman guard.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws. (vs. 15 NASB)
This verse is a description of the results of extreme thirst (“I thirst” – see John 19:28). Jesus palate was so dry He could barely speak or swallow.
5b And You lay me in the dust of death. 6 For dogs (Gentiles) have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet. (Crucifixion) (vss. 5b-6 NASB)
This almost needs no explanation. It is a perfect picture of what happened to Jesus on Calvary.
17 I can count all my bones they look, they stare at me; 18 They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. (vss. 17-18 NASB)
The Roman soldiers mocked Jesus and cast lots for His robe (see Matthew 27:35).
The point of this exposition is to show how Jesus’ crucifixion was no mere accident of history but was prophesied in the Old Testament. It is one of more than 300 prophesies of the Messiah fulfilled by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (see Josh McDowell: The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict [chapter 8]; Here’s Life Pub., 1999).
Reason 2 – The Crucifixion Was a Historical Reality.
All four gospels include an account of Jesus’ crucifixion. They each emphasize different aspects of the event and give various quotes from Jesus while he hung on the cross. Yet they all affirm the same basic event in time and space. What’s interesting is that even some of the world’s most skeptical scholars agree that the crucifixion was a historical fact. Jesus did die on the Cross! (Note – Some radical old skeptics did not even believe Jesus was a real person, but they are now a dwindling minority.)
There are a number of good reasons why we can believe it is true history. One is the testimonies of many eyewitness sources who saw it happen. The gospels indicate that Mary the mother of Jesus was at the cross with the Apostle John. Also present were a crowd of onlookers, the Jewish priests, a Roman centurion and other soldiers assigned to the duty. If Jesus had not actually died, someone would have said so.
Another key piece of evidence for the crucifixion is the medical accuracy of its biblical description. Medical doctors have shown how the Bible’s accounts fit very well with anatomical studies of what happens to a man’s body the way Jesus was crucified (for more evidences like these see Lee Strobel: The Case for Christ – A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus; and Gary R. Habermas: The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ).
All this testifies to the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion was a historical reality. But there are also important theological reasons for its occurrence.
Reason 3 – The Crucifixion Satisfied God’s Requirement for a Sacrificial Atonement.
In the last installment in this series we studied a big theological word: “Propitiation” (NASB – Greek: hilasmas – sometimes translated as “expiation” [RSV] or “atoning sacrifice” [NIV; NRSV]). As we said, that word means “satisfaction” or “completion” (see Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). In other words, Jesus satisfied the necessary and just penalty for sin by His death on the cross.
To illustrate that concept we turn to another important Messianic passage from the Old Testament: the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. This passage is often titled the “Suffering Servant” because it describes in detail how the Messiah would have to suffer for our sins. Consider a few selected verses:
4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. 7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers. … 10 But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, he will see His offspring, he will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. 11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, he will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, my Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities. 12 Because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53: 4-7, 10-12 NASB)
It was this passage which Philip interpreted for the Ethiopian official on the Gaza Road that led to his conversion (see Acts 8:25-39). Perhaps no scripture, Old or New Testament, could state in a more graphic or powerful way how Jesus died for our sins! This naturally leads to the fourth reason to believe in the crucifixion.
Reason 4 – The Crucifixion Provided for Us the Only Just Way of Salvation.
Several months ago I was involved in a fender bender car accident. Unfortunately, I was charged with “following to close” and was given a date to appear in court to answer for my act. So, a few weeks later, I went to county Probate traffic court where I had to pay the small fine. Why? Because I was guilty of violating the law. I therefore was required to render the appropriate legal penalty.
But, what if I went to court and the judge happened to be my father. What if he were to say, “Since you are my son then you don’t have pay. You can go.” Would that be justice? Of course not. I was guilty and deserved the fine. Paying it would be the only just thing to do.
But what if the judge (my own father) declares me guilty as charged and imposes the penalty. He then comes down off the bench, takes off his judicial robe, resigns his judgeship, and then pays the fine for me. Is that just? Yes! In that case justice is satisfied!
If Jesus had not been crucified for our sins we would still be lost. We could never pay the just penalty for our sins. If He had not taken our sins on Himself we would not be redeemed. The whole point of the crucifixion was for Jesus, as our Passover Lamb, to pay the price once and for all for our sins. Out of His love for us, God the Son willingly stepped out of eternity to give Himself as a substitute on our behalf to fulfill the justice of God’s wrath against sin. That was the only just way it could have happened.
But the crucifixion of Jesus was not an end in itself. His death paved the way for a great miracle.
Reason 5 – The Crucifixion Prepared the Way for the Resurrection.
The Apostle Paul made this audacious statement:
1 Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. … 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:1-4, 16-19 NASB)
The birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are all inextricably linked. If Jesus had not been born, He would not have lived a sinless life. If He had not lived a sinless life there would have been no crucifixion and no propitiation. If there had been no crucifixion, there would have been no resurrection. If there had been no resurrection, there would be no salvation. And if there had been no salvation, there would be no eternal life. Every aspect of Jesus’ work was absolutely necessary. Otherwise we would be forever lost in our sinfulness.
Of all the methods of execution mankind has devised, crucifixion ranks as one of the most painful. Crucifixion was an ugly and horrible way of death for Jesus. Nonetheless, it was absolutely necessary. In the final installment we will examine why we should also believe in the resurrection. The crucifixion and resurrection were inextricably intertwined. Both events were needed and both were essential for the salvation of mankind.
In the last installment we will consider the reasons why we should believe in the resurrection of Jesus and why it is crucial to the veracity of Christianity.
© 2013 Tal Davis