The Cross struck fear in the hearts of the world. It was Rome’s means of controlling the people.
According to Roman custom, the penalty of crucifixion was always preceded by scourging; after this preliminary punishment, the condemned person had to carry the cross, or at least the transverse beam of it, to the place of execution, exposed to the jibes, insults, and spitting of the people.
On arrival at the place of execution the cross was uplifted. Soon the sufferer, entirely naked, was bound to it with cords. He was then fastened with four nails to the wood of the cross. Finally, a placard bearing the name of the condemned man and his sentence was placed at the top of the cross.
It often happened that the condemned man did not die of hunger or thirst, but lingered for several days. To shorten his punishment and lessen his terrible suffering, his legs were sometimes broken.
This would put more strain on the arms, with the result that the chest caved in, and suffocation assisted the death. The custom, exceptional among the Romans, was common with the Jews. In this way it was possible to take down the corpse on the very evening of the execution.
It is interesting that Jesus is responsible for the abolishment of the cross as a means of capital punishment. In the early part of the fourth century Constantine continued to inflict the penalty of the cross on slaves guilty of denouncing their masters. Eventually he abolished this infamous punishment, in memory and in honor of the Passion of the Christ. From then on, this punishment was very rarely inflicted and finally the practice faded into history. But, oh, how history has remembered.
As the week of Jesus’ Passion is coming to a close, it is well for us to reflect upon the cross. Jesus said: Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” And Martin Luther many centuries later would write, “Man must always have a cross.” Every one of us does have a cross to bear, but which one? Is ours the cross on the right, the left, or the center? Let us review for a moment this scene on Calvary.
The first cross represents the cross of rebellion. The purpose of crucifixion was to offer a horrible death for those caught in rebellion against the state or society. In the year 71BC Emperor Crassus crucified over 6,000 Jews who had rebelled against Rome. Their crosses lined the Via Appia, what we call it the Appian Way, on either side of the road for 100 miles. Another Emperor had crucified over 2,000 rebellious Jews around Jerusalem. The cost of rebellion was death.
The thief on the first cross was an anti-social rebel of sorts, although the term “rebel” perhaps gives him too much credit. The only cause that he was fighting for was himself. He was simply a criminal of the streets. No one, Jew or Roman, was sorry to see him go. Even in his death he is rebellious. He joins the enemies of Jesus, who are at the foot of the cross, in mocking the savior. He shouts to him: ‘If you are the Christ then save yourself, and save us.” He did not turn to Jesus for mercy. He went to his death an angry and a bitter man.
We, too, are rebels against God. What we deserve is the first cross, the cross of rebellion. We display our rebellion in our sins. The rebellion of sin, taken to its extreme, leads us to rebel even against salvation itself. We are often not conscious of needing a Savior, because we think we are doing quite well for ourselves. There are many like the thief upon the first cross.
We rebel against God’s mercy.
We rebel against spiritual authority. We
refuse to repent. We would rather die
than ask for help. Many find it quite
impossible to admit that they have done wrong.
The tragedy of the cross of rebellion is that this criminal is not only
killed, but he also refuses the eternal life which Christ alone offers. He chose hell rather than paradise.
There was yet another thief on the opposite side of Jesus and his represents the cross of repentance. This criminal was just as bad as the other. He was just as deserving of punishment. Yet, at the last hour this man gains Paradise. What made the difference? It was repentance. His genuine sorrow was evident when he confessed his rebellion: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.” This was the beginning point of salvation. You see; if we do not think of ourselves as sinful people, then we do not see ourselves in need of a Savior.
Why does God require repentance? We must understand that repentance is not for God’s sake; it is for our sake. Its purpose is not to make us feel bad or guilty, but simply to admit reality. The reality is that all have fallen short of God’s intention for us. Repentance is just the first step. Repentance does not do away with sin. It does not do away with the memory of sin. It does not do away with the consequences of sin. It is simply a turning away from that which leads to death to that which leads to life.
After quieting his fellow
criminal, this repentant thief looks to Jesus and asks for mercy and
forgiveness. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The dying Jesus replies: Today you will be
with me in paradise. Faith and
repentance. Baptism was not even
required. Simply faith and repentance.
The third Cross, that of Jesus, represents the cross of redemption. So that the world might know, Pilate put the sign up in three languages: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Even in the implied sarcasm there is irony. For it is for the sins of the whole world that Jesus died.
I want to tell you a story. In October 1987, one year-old Jessica McClure of Midland, Texas fell down an abandoned well. She was found on a ledge 22 feet below the surface. There she was, crying for her mother, in the cold darkness of this well. Her plight captured the attention of the entire nation. The people of the town gathered to rescue her. They worked continuously for two and a half days. Federal Express in Memphis flew down a special drill bit to aid in the rescue. I remember when she was rescued, because it was on a Friday night and I was home watching TV when the news broke in to show the dramatic pictures. Thank God, she was saved.
Friends, each one of us is in
the same condition morally and spiritually as that little girl. We have fallen into the darkness of sin and
there we are trapped. We cannot
extradite ourselves, although the tragedy is that we think that we can. We need someone to save us from disaster, from
ourselves. That is what Jesus did for us
on the cross. By his death he redeemed,
or bought us back, from the consequences of sin. In Christ, God did for us what we would never
have been able to do for ourselves.
This is the one cross that you and I cannot carry. This cross was for Jesus alone. That is why many altar crosses in sanctuaries bear the name of Jesus, IHS, the first three Greek letters of Jesus name.
This cross is one of the few things that he could truly call his own.
And so we have three crosses:
the cross of Rebellion, the cross of Repentance, and the Cross of Redemption. Which is the greatest? There is an apocryphal story, a legend or myth
really, told of Empress Helena, wife of the Roman Emperor Constantine. It is said that she went to Jerusalem to find
the true cross. She found three broken
down crosses, but no one knew which Jesus was laid upon. To find out she
ordered a corpse to be laid on the first one, nothing happened. The corpse was then put on the second cross,
again, nothing happened. Then she
ordered it placed on the third cross and the corpse came alive. She declared that this was the true cross, for
it and it alone brings life.
An old hymn verse goes like this: “Beneath the cross of Jesus, two wonders I confess: The wonder of redeeming love and my unworthiness.” If you ever have any doubt as to the extent of God’s love for you, look to the Cross of Christ. It alone gives life. Amen.