This past Sunday, we sang “The Wonderful Cross”. Christians, knowing what we know – namely, that the cross was not the end of Jesus’s life, and that God would use that execution device for his glory and sinners’ salvation – can speak of the cross as “wonderful”. But historically, that wasn’t always the case.
One scholar notes that “crucifixion probably originated with the Persians. It was later adopted by the Romans and finally abolished by Constantine…In the first century A.D. crucifixion was one of the strongest forms of deterrence against insurrection or political agitation in Roman provinces. Crucifixion was preceded by scourging. When the victim was affixed to the cross, he was stripped and mocked. The pain was extreme. After the victim died, the body was often left on the cross to decay and become food for scavengers.” Another scholar adds that “Crucifixion was quintessentially a public affair…the general populace was given a grim reminder of the fate of those who assert themselves against the authority of the state.” Crucifixion was considered so physically brutal and socially shameful that “as a rule, Roman citizens were spared from this form of execution”.
I don’t know about you, but nothing about that sounds “wonderful” to me – and that’s without going into the gruesome details about the physical pain of crucifixion!
But when we consider the historical context of crucifixion, we can see why Jesus’s disciples were so confused by his prediction of his own crucifixion (Matthew 26:1-2). It also explains why Jesus instructing his disciples to “take up their crosses and follow me” would sound so bizarre (and unappealing). Nevertheless – after they witnessed Jesus’s resurrection, and received the gift of the Holy Spirit – many of Jesus’s disciples endured crucifixion themselves.
In addition, when we consider the historical context of crucifixion, we gain a deeper appreciation for what exactly Jesus endured for sinners. Yes, it was physically excruciating; you may have heard medical experts explain the long process of death by cross. But the pain of the cross wasn’t just physical; it was mental, emotional, social, and even spiritual. The cross was the ultimate form of shame. And even while two others were crucified next to him, Jesus felt a profound sense of loneliness there (see his cry from Psalm 22:1).
In short: to Jesus’s disciples, there was nothing “wonderful” about the cross – until about three days later. It’s only when viewed through the lens of the resurrection that the cross becomes something glorious. Had God not raised his Son from the dead, Jesus would have been just another failed political/religious revolutionary cut down in his youth (one most of us today probably would have never heard of). As the Apostle Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15:19, had God not raised Jesus from the dead, Christians “are of all people most to be pitied.”
The same is true for us. There’s nothing “wonderful” about the cross apart from the resurrection. When Jesus rises from the dead, we learn that he really is who he said he is: God’s Son, greater than Abraham, greater than David, and the “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus’s resurrection proves that he really was a worthy sacrifice for our sins. The empty tomb shows us that Jesus now lives, and that there is new life (both now, and in the future) for those united to him by faith.
We recently had dinner with some friends from seminary who live in town but attend a different church. The woman was explaining her frustration on Easter several years ago, when their pastor preached a sermon entirely focused on the cross, with no mention of the empty tomb. She was perplexed that a preacher could spend the morning of Easter talking so much about Jesus’s crucifixion, but saying nothing about Jesus’s resurrection – and I think she was right! Because apart from the resurrection, there’s nothing wonderful about the cross.
But when we remember that Jesus’s final breath did not occur on the cross, even a practice as brutal as crucifixion is robbed of its power. Better yet, it isn’t just robbed of its power; its power is co-opted by God to accomplish something magnificent!
Because of the resurrection, believers can sing a song that would have sounded so nonsensical to every human being who ever lived before roughly 30 A.D. Because of the resurrection, we can call a dark and tragic Friday “good”. Because of the resurrection, we can say with a straight face that the penalty for our sin has been paid, that we will be victorious over sin, death, Satan, and worldly powers and authorities in the end. Because of the resurrection, we can be confident that we really do have “peace with God” (Romans 5:1). Because of the resurrection, we can hang crosses on our walls, wear them around our necks, embroider them on our pillows, print them on our t-shirts, and engrave them on our tombstones.
For believers, the cross was just one (albeit crucial) step to Jesus’s exaltation and our salvation. We can call a dark, tragic, blood-soaked Friday “good”, because we know what took place the following Sunday. On Easter, that horrible cross really did become something wonderful – and it still is today.