There are many impossible things to ponder during Holy Week (questions that remain a mystery; answers that exceed our capacity to understand), but for me one question rises above all others: Why did God choose the cross? I believe that the cross is at the center of our salvation. I also believe that it didn’t just work out that way; rather, God chose, even before the foundations of the earth, that he would redeem fallen humanity by dying for it on the cross. There are all sorts of impossible things in those last three sentences to ponder, but the one that makes no sense to me whatsoever is why would God choose the cross as his instrument of salvation. After all, there are thousands of ways to die; why choose one of the most painful, the most agonizing, the most horrific? Even if we focused only on the 3 most severe means of Roman execution—burning at the stake, beheading and crucifixion, I still would not choose the cross. And for two really good reasons: the cross was excruciating, and the cross was absolutely dehumanizing. Theologian Greg Gilbert poignantly describes both. He writes:

“Shredded flesh against unforgiving wood, iron stakes pounded through bone and wracked nerves, joints wrenched out of socket by the sheer dead weight of the body, public humiliation before the eyes of family, friends, and the world—that was death on the cross. That is how Jesus died.”

But it only gets worse. See, Rome not only used the cross as a means of torture, but as a means of making a statement, or actually six statements. These six statements are what Rome meant to communicate when they crucified someone.

First, they were declaring that the victim did not deserve to be called human. Not just anyone could be crucified. This was a death reserved for the lowest of the low and the worst of the worst. If you had power, if you had wealth, if you had important friends, no matter what you did, you could probably avoid crucifixion. But if you were a slave, if you were powerless and you were perceived to be guilty of some horrific crime, you would never escape the cross. That is why crucifixion is called the slaves’ penalty. Bottom line: Crucifixion not only said that you were guilty of a crime but that you deserved to die an agonizing death because you are not human.

Second, crucifixion was reserved for the worst crimes and the most notorious offenders.  Please understand, many serious crimes were never punished by crucifixion. But, if you committed high treason, if you were guilty of leading a revolt, if you were a dangerous criminal, or if you were an enemy of the state, then crucifixion was deemed the right punishment.  And if you were part of a rebellious element in an unruly province like Judea or if you were a slave and threatened an uprising,  you can be sure that, if you were arrested, you could be crucified. That was the law. Why? Because crucifixion was the supreme Roman penalty, and it was used to put down any and all thoughts of civil disobedience.

Third, crucifixion was always used as a deterrent to others. Again, let me quote from Greg Gilbert:

“Crucifixion was never a private event. It was always raw and searingly public, because its purpose was to terrify the masses into submission. Crosses often lined the main roads into cities, holding the broken, writhing bodies of the condemned or displaying the rotting corpses of the dead. The Romans even scheduled public crucifixions to coincide with religious festivals, ensuring the maximum number of people present to witness the horror.” See, crucifixion was always perceived as a necessary and just punishment; and therefore, Rome proudly and gladly displayed its crosses.

Fourth, crucifixion was an utterly brutal and vile death meant to strip the victim of every shred of dignity. It even encouraged onlookers to add further insult to injury by inciting them to cruelly mock and taunt the victim. In most cases, it even prohibited the burial of the crucified. Bodies were thrown onto a trash heap or just left on the cross to rot. The Latin author Juvenal remarked: “The vulture hurries from dead cattle and dogs and to crosses to gather food.” When the victim was no longer recognizable as a human being, the task was done.

Fifth, crucifixion sent a message: Never go against Rome. And anyone who did so, would be tortured in a cruel and ruthless way. Here’s how The International Encyclopedia of the Bible described crucifixion:

“The suffering of death by crucifixion was intense, especially in hot climates. Significant blood loss produced traumatic fever. Exposure strained the body and created an insufferable thirst. The site where the nails were driven into the flesh became swollen and infected. The lacerated tendons and the sliced nerves caused excruciating agony. Convulsions would tear at the wounds and add to the pain. Death rarely took place before 36 hours had elapsed. To speed things alone, the victim’s legs were often crushed with a hammer. The victim of crucifixion literally died a thousand deaths.”

Last, crucifixion was meant to be obscene. Josephus was an eyewitness to numerous crucifixions. He called it: “The most wretched of deaths.” And for the Jews, the cross was doubly offensive because the victim was not only cursed by Rome, but also by God because Deuteronomy (21:23) tells us that anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse. The scholar Martin Hengel wrote: “The cross symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture.” To be crucified was to be cursed in every direction. It was the most wretched of deaths.

And yet, before the foundations of the world, Jesus chose to die on a cross. Why? I can only grasp at an answer, but it must be that since Rome used the cross to communicate a message, so God also wanted to use the cross to communicate a message, but one that was in every way different. In short, God wanted to communicate his message of love and grace through the cross. Let me explain.

First, on the cross, Jesus was identifying with the lowest of the low, the poor, the broken, and those who were suffering and overcome by the ravages of a sinful world. And on the cross, Jesus identified even with the slave. We usually soften the great hymn found in Philippians 2. The word is “slave,” but we translate it “servant.” But Rome calls crucifixion, the slaves’ punishment; as a result, the global context demands the word, “slave.” There, we read this about Jesus (Phil. 2:6-8): “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a slave, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” Jesus just didn’t become one of us. Jesus became like the least of us so that we could see not only that God’s love extends to all of us, but that Jesus identifies with the worst of human suffering. Jesus abandoned all of his rights and became powerless and gave us an example of great humility that we should follow.

Second, on the cross, Jesus died for the worst of our sins and for us, the most notorious sinners. I love this quote from John Stott:

“Every time we look at the cross, Christ seems to say to us, ‘I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.’ Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size.”

The irony here is also amazing: Jesus was condemned to die on the cross because he was seen as an enemy of the state; the leader of an uprising against the powers that be. He was guilty of none of those charges and, at the same time, all of those charges. He WAS an enemy of the state. Jesus is Lord and not Caesar. He WAS leading an uprising; the strategy of his kingdom was to overcome evil with good and to eradicate hatred and strife with love and peace. Jesus WAS leading a revolution, but it was unlike any revolution before it. Jesus came to overthrow sin and death and to establish a kingdom of love.

Third, on the cross, Jesus was calling others to follow him in the way of love and peace and sacrifice. We hear this when Jesus calls out to his disciples, saying (Mk. 8:34): “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We hear this when Peter calls us to follow Jesus in suffering (1 Pt. 2:21-3): “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” But there is another sense here. Rome wanted people to see their victims on the cross. They thought it would deter crime. Jesus invites us to see his death upon the cross. He thinks it will deter sin and death and misery. Matthew Henry writes: “Come, and see the victories of the cross. Christ’s wounds are thy healings, His agonies thy repose, His conflicts thy conquests, His groans thy songs, His pains thine ease, His shame thy glory, His death thy life, His sufferings thy salvation.”

Fourth, on the cross, an instrument of torture designed to strip away every trace of human dignity, Jesus restored human dignity and gave our lives infinite meaning and worth. Here’s our hope: 1 Corinthians 15 (45ff): “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being;’ the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven.  And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” Without a doubt, the image of God was deeply marred by our sin, but now, through the cross of Christ, our dignity and honor and glory has been restored. Paul says in 2 Corinthians (5:17): “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

Fifth, on the cross, Jesus not only experienced the wrath of Rome, but also the wrath of God, but in his death he purchased our redemption. Here’s the good news of the gospel from 2 Corinthians 5:21: God made him who had no sin to be sin or us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

But here’s the greatest news: Rome intended the cross to be obscene. But Jesus took our place and died our death and bore our curse. Paul says these remarkable words in Galatians 3 (13) that transformed how we view the cross. He wrote: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.’” And as he bore our curse, he birthed our redemption.

You can hear all of this: our perspective and God’s perspective in Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 1. Here’s the gospel (1Cor. 1:18-25):

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

God’s plan was to express his unfailing love to all the peoples, to us, through the foolishness of the cross. And in that wretched death we see the unfathomable depth of God’s love for us.

The words of this hymn from the Welsh Revival say it beautifully:

On the mount of crucifixion,
fountains opened deep and wide,
through the floodgates of God’s mercy,
flowed a vast and gracious tide,
grace and love like mighty rivers,
flowed incessant from above,
Heaven’s peace and perfect justice,
kissed a guilty world in love.”

Rome meant one thing in the cross, but that meaning is now lost on us who see all that God did to redeem us. Now, we see what God meant in the atonement; and we rejoice in God’s infinite love and goodness to us.  Why would God love us so much, and why would he condescend so far to redeem us? Those are mysteries that we will never be able to comprehend.

May your Maundy Thursday and Good Friday be a rich time in pondering all of this.