Each year around this time, as we march with anticipation toward the glory and grandeur of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, there is a tendency to overemphasize the process of crucifixion in our zeal to say to others, “Behold the love of God for you! See what Jesus did for you!”
Now don’t get me wrong: we need to know what crucifixion is in order to understand how Jesus died. He wasn’t beheaded, run through with a sword, stoned to death, or drowned. He was crucified. First-century readers of the New Testament knew what crucifixion was, so there was no need for the Gospel writers to delve into all of its gruesome and brutal details.
Focusing on the details of crucifixion may be a true enough account of what Jesus went through, but the problem is that we may neglect to emphasize the greater horror of what Jesus endured. Mere crucifixion stops short of what Jesus did and doesn’t capture the wisdom of the cross and center of the gospel.
In our Good Friday ruminations, we may unintentionally let the method of the crucifixion obscure the message of the cross. Here are three truths to keep in mind.
1. People were crucified before, with, and after Jesus. Let’s observe first that crucifixion wasn’t unique to Jesus but was a violent method of execution that the Romans used with disturbing proficiency and effectiveness. Seeing someone hanging from a cross was an incredible public deterrent from rebelling against those in power. There were many crucifixions. What made the cross of Jesus different? Not the type of wood, length of nails, public scorn, or looming asphyxiation.
2. Unique to Jesus’ death was the cup he drank. In Gethsemane, Jesus knew he faced more than the punishment of men. He acknowledged that he would drink the “cup” of his Father’s wrath (Matt. 26:39). What he would endure on the cross was more than a painful death. The message of the Gospel is not that Jesus died in a manner hundreds of others did. The message is that on the cross Jesus took the cup of God’s judgment and drank it dry. Now while there are certain things you can portray in a film about Jesus—such as flogging, hauling the beam to Golgotha, agonizing cries and groans from pain, exasperation as legs weaken from pushing up to seize a breath—there are also things that don’t communicate through the art of film-making. Jesus bore wrath. The Son was forsaken. The Messiah was fulfilling prophecy. To onlookers, though, this was just another man getting his due, another troublemaker extinguished by mighty Rome. The insurrectionists to his right and left would not have seen the cup he spoke about at Gethsemane. The greatness of this event, though, was in the very thing no one else could see. Eyes didn’t discern something that had been planned before the foundation of the world.
3. The power of Jesus’ crucifixion was in the penal-substitution. Paul told the Corinthians he wanted “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). But why? The wisdom of the cross is the power of God to those being saved (2:18). Paul wants to know God’s wisdom, even though some deem it foolishness, because on the cross the God-Man became sin for our sake (2 Cor. 5:21). He bore our griefs and sorrows (Isa 53:4), and he paid the wage for our transgressions and iniquities (53:5). The judgment he bore was for our sins, not for his own. He had been tempted but never sinned (Heb. 4:15) in order that he might make satisfy God’s justice hanging over sinners (Heb. 2:17). Paul believes this is a message of love: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). What we deserved, the Son of God took upon himself.
The death of Jesus was the death of a man, but Jesus was more than a man. The Gospel declares that God’s Son—this One through whom the world was made and who upholds the universe—made purification for our sins (Heb. 1:2-3). And his cross was different than all those that were raised before, beside, and after it. There on that tree of shame and reproach, God’s Redeemer carried the weight of sin.
We should want people to know the message of the cross, and that means we must talk about sin and judgment, righteousness and wrath, substitution and redemption. We are not praying that our hearers be sympathetic and full of pity but repentant and full of godly sorrow. Gruesome verbal portrayals of crucifixion may make them cringe and shudder, but only the Gospel message of penal-substitution—the righteous dying for the unrighteous—can make the sinner cry out, “Jesus, son of God and Redeemer, have mercy on me a sinner!”