All four evangelists write about the death of Jesus on the cross in the Bible. The death on the cross was not a Jewish way to execute people. The Romans had sentenced Jesus to death on the cross at the insistence of the Jewish religious leaders who incited the people.
Death on the cross is a slow and painful death. In the writings of the evangelists and the letters of the apostle Paul, the cross acquires a theological meaning. Through the death of Jesus on the cross, his followers were relieved of the staff of sin.
The cross as a punishment in ancient times
- 1 The cross as a punishment in ancient times
- 2 The cross is not a Jewish punishment
- 3 The symbolic meaning of the cross in the Roman world
- 4 The crucifixion of Jesus
- 5 The symbolic meaning of the cross of Jesus
- 6 The meaning of the cross in gospels
- 7 The meaning of the cross in Paul’s letters
The use of the cross as the execution of the sentenced to death probably dates from the time of the Persian Empire. There the criminals were nailed to the cross for the first time. The reason for this was that they wanted to prevent the corpse’s corpse from contaminating the earth dedicated to the deity.
Via the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great and his successors, the cross would gradually have penetrated to the west. Before the beginning of the current era, people in Greece and Rome were sentenced to death on the cross.
The cross as punishment for slaves
Both in the Greek and in the Roman Empire, the death on the cross was mainly applied to slaves. For example, if a slave disobeyed his master or if a slave tried to flee, he risked being sentenced to the cross. The cross was also frequently used by the Romans in slave revolts. It was a deterrent.
The Roman writer and philosopher Cicero, for example, states that death through the cross must be seen as an extraordinarily barbaric and horrible death. According to Roman historians, the Romans have punished the rebellion of the slaves led by Spartacus by crucifying six thousand rebels. The crosses stood on the Via Agrippa from Capua to Rome over many kilometers.
The cross is not a Jewish punishment
In the Old Testament, the Jewish Bible, the cross is not mentioned as a means of sentencing criminals to death. Words like cross or crucifixion do not occur in the Old Testament at all. People talk about a different way of sentencing to end. A standard method for the Jews in Biblical times to put someone to death was the stoning.
There are various laws on stoning in Moses’ laws. Both humans and animals could be killed by stoning. For religious crimes, such as calling up spirits (Leviticus 20:27) or with child sacrifices (Leviticus 20: 1), or with adultery (Leviticus 20:10) or with murder, someone could be stoned.
Crucifixions in the land of Israel
Crucifying convicts only became a collective punishment in the Jewish country after the arrival of the Roman ruler in 63 BC. Perhaps there have been crucifixions in Israel before. For example, it is mentioned that in the year 100 BC, the Jewish king Alexander Jannaeus killed hundreds of Jewish insurgents on the cross in Jerusalem. In Roman times, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus writes about the mass crucifixion of Jewish resistance fighters.
The symbolic meaning of the cross in the Roman world
The Romans had conquered a vast territory in the time of Jesus. In that whole area, the cross stood for the domination of Rome. The cross meant that the Romans were in charge and that whoever stands in their way will be destroyed by them in a rather nasty way. For the Jews, the crucifixion of Jesus means that he cannot be the Messiah, the expected savior. The Messiah would bring peace to Israel, and the cross confirmed the power and enduring domination of Rome.
The crucifixion of Jesus
The four gospels describe how Jesus is crucified (Matthew 27: 26-50; Mark 15: 15-37; Luke 23: 25-46; John 19: 1-34). These descriptions correspond to descriptions of crucifixions by non-Biblical sources. The evangelists describe how Jesus is mocked openly. His clothes are ripped off him. He is then forced by the Roman soldiers to carry the crossbar ( patibulum ) to the execution plate.
The cross consisted of a pole and the crossbar ( patibulum). At the beginning of the crucifixion, the pole was already standing. The convicted person was nailed to the crossbar with his hands or tied with strong ropes. The crossbar with the convicted person was then pulled upwards along the raised post. The crucified person eventually died of blood loss, exhaustion, or suffocation. Jesus died on the cross in no time.
The symbolic meaning of the cross of Jesus
The cross has a significant symbolic significance for Christians. Many people have across as a pendant on a chain around the neck. Crosses can also be seen in churches and on church towers as a sign of faith. In a sense, it can be said that the cross has become a summarizing symbol of the Christian faith.
The meaning of the cross in gospels
Each of the four evangelists writes about the death of Jesus on the cross. Thereby every evangelist, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John set their own accents. So there are differences in the meaning and interpretation of the cross among the evangelists.
The cross at Matthew as a Scripture fulfillment
Matthew wrote his gospel for a Jewish-Christian congregation. He describes the suffering story in greater detail than Marcus. The satisfaction of the scriptures is a central theme in Matthew. Jesus accepts the cross of his own free will (Matt. 26: 53-54), his suffering has nothing to do with guilt (Mat. 27: 4, 19, 24-25), but everything with the fulfillment of the Scriptures (26: 54; 27: 3-10). For example, Matthew shows Jewish readers that the Messiah must suffer and die.
The cross with Marcus, sober and with hope
Mark describes the death of Jesus on the cross in a dry but very penetrating way. In his cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you left me” (Mark 15:34) shows Jesus not only his despair but also hope. For these words are the beginning of Psalm 22. This Psalm is a prayer in which the believer not only speaks out his misery, but also the confidence that God will save him: his face hid not from him, but he heard when he cried unto him” (Psalm 22:25).
The cross with Luke following
In his preaching, Luke addresses a group of Christians who suffer from persecution, oppression, and suspicion on the part of Jewish groups. The book of Acts, the second part of Luke’s writings, is full of it. Luke presents Jesus as the ideal martyr. He is an example of the believers. The call of Jesus on the cross bears witness to surrender: “And Jesus cried with a loud voice: Father, in your hands I commend my spirit.” In Acts, Luke shows that a believer follows this example. Stephen exclaims when, because of his testimony, he is stoned: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).
The elevation on the cross with John
With the evangelist John, there is no mention of the shame of the cross. Jesus does not go the way of humiliation, as Paul, for example, writes in the letter to the Philippians (2: 8). John sees the symbol of victory in the cross of Jesus. The fourth gospel describes the cross in terms of exaltation and glorification (John 3:14; 8:28; 12: 32-34; 18:32). With John, the cross is the way up, the crown of the Christ.
The meaning of the cross in Paul’s letters
The apostle Paul himself probably did not witness the death of Jesus on the cross. Yet the cross is an essential symbol in his writings. In the letters he wrote to the various congregations and individuals, he testified to the importance of the cross for the life of believers. Paul himself did not have to fear the condemnation of the cross.
As a Roman citizen, he was protected against this by law. As a Roman citizen, the cross was a disgrace to him. In his letters, Paul calls the cross a scandal ( scandal) and foolishness: “but we preach a crucified Christ, a jolt for Jews, foolishness for Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Paul confesses that Christ’s death on the cross is “according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15: 3). The cross is not just a disastrous shame, but according to the Old Testament, it was the way that God wanted to go with his Messiah.
The cross as the basis for salvation
Paul describes the cross in his letters as a way to salvation (1 Cor. 1: 18). Sins are forgiven by the cross of Christ. “… by wiping out the evidence that testified against us and threatened us through his statutes. And He did that by nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). The crucifixion of Jesus is a sacrifice for sin. He died in place of sinners.
The believers are ‘co-crucified’ with him. In the letter to the Romans, Paul writes: “For we know this, that our old man is co-crucified, that his body might be taken away from sin, and that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom. 6: 6). Or as he writes to the church of the Galatians: “With Christ, I have been crucified, and yet I live, (that is),
Sources and references
- Introduction photo: Free-Photos , Pixabay
- A. Noordergraaf and others (ed.). (2005). Dictionary for Bible readers.Zoetermeer, Book Center.
- CJ Den Heyer and P. Schelling (2001). Symbols in the Bible. Words and their meanings. Zoetermeer: Meinema.
- J. Nieuwenhuis (2004). John the Seer. Cook: Kampen.
- J. Smit. (1972). The suffering story. In: R. Schippers, et al. (Ed.). The Bible. Band V. Amsterdam: Amsterdam book.
- T. Wright (2010). Surprised by hope. Franeker: Van Wijnen publishing house.
- Bible quotes from the NBG, 1951