[Editor's note: the following excerpt is taken from "Why the Cross?" by Dr. John Blanchard (EP Books, 2011). To read part 1 of this article series, please click here, for part 2 click here, part 3 here.] For a complete copy of this series now, click here.
So far we have looked at what led to the crucifixion of Jesus and at the horrific event itself. To understand what really lay behind it we now need to take a much closer look at the victim. We can do this from several different angles, all recorded in the Bible.
There was nothing unusual about crucifixion at that time. The Jewish historian Josephus records that around 40 bc Publius Quinctilius Varus, the Roman governor of Syria, had 2,000 Jewish rebels crucified in a single day. Crucifixion was usually reserved for slaves, the worst of criminals, military deserters, traitors and rebels against the state.
To add to its humiliating nature, crucifixion was a public event, and three crucifixions due to take place at the same time would probably attract a fair-sized crowd. What did they make of Jesus?
For the members of the execution squad he was just another criminal, and putting him to death just another day's work. Once they were satisfied that they had nailed Jesus' naked body firmly to the cross, the four soldiers concerned each claimed one piece of his clothing. They then gambled to decide who should have the one remaining item (see John 19:23-24) before taunting him by shouting, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!' (Luke 23:36-37).
Many in the watching crowd were nothing more than idle onlookers, who had ‘assembled for this spectacle' (Luke 23:48) and just ‘stood by, watching' (Luke 23:35). For some, reports of his claims and miracles would ring hollow now that he seemed unable to resist the Roman and Jewish authorities. They ‘derided him, wagging their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross"' (Matthew 27:39-40).
The religious leaders who had hounded Jesus to death joined in the mockery: ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him' (Matthew 27:42). The robbers who were crucified with him ‘also reviled him in the same way' (Matthew 27:44).
Some had very different emotions. For Mary, Jesus' mother, standing by the cross (John 19:25), there was the terrible trauma of seeing what was being done to her firstborn son, while other family members and close friends would also have anguished over what was happening. Even without family ties, followers of Jesus (John is the only one of the twelve disciples specifically mentioned as being present) would have been devastated at seeing their dearest friend humiliated, tortured and put to death in this way.
Some onlookers may have been seeing Jesus for the first time and some may have come across him earlier that week, when he was ‘teaching daily in the temple' (Luke 19:47). Yet for his closest followers their agony was mingled with memories of the previous three years spent in his company — and what memories they must have shared!
When Jesus was twelve years old he had spent time in the temple during Passover Week, discussing religious issues with some of the nation's leading theologians. Not only was he ‘listening to them and asking them questions' (Luke 2:46) — something to be expected from a young boy — but he was also addressing questions which they put to him, and ‘all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers' (Luke 2:47, emphasis added). During his public ministry his disciples had the benefit of this amazing wisdom at first hand. They saw crowds ‘astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes' (Matthew 7:28-29). When he taught in his local synagogue in Nazareth, those who heard him were ‘astonished' and asked, ‘Where did this man get his wisdom and these mighty works?' (Matthew 13:54). Officers sent to arrest him returned to their masters empty-handed, explaining that they dare not lay hands on him, as ‘No one ever spoke like this man!' (John 7:46). Why the cross for someone whose teaching enlightened and revolutionized the thinking of countless people?
Others would have remembered, or have heard, that ‘he went about doing good' (Acts 10:38) and that when he saw people in need ‘he had compassion on them' (Matthew 14:14). At one point ‘a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon' flocked after him (Luke 6:17), yet, far from revelling in his popularity, he remained ‘gentle and lowly in heart' (Matthew 11:29). He behaved no differently when attacked: ‘When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats' (1 Peter 2:23, NIV). Reflecting on this, the apostle Paul wrote of ‘the meekness and gentleness of Christ' (2 Corinthians 10:1). Unlike those who were self-centred, Jesus ‘did not please himself' (Romans 15:3) and constantly put the interests of others before his own. Why the cross for a man like this?
Jesus's love and compassion were demonstrated in his astonishing miracles. At the beginning of his ministry we find him ‘healing every disease and every affliction among the people' (Matthew 4:23). This does not mean that he left behind a trail of sickness-free zones, but he did heal countless people, including those suffering from blindness, deafness, organic disorders, paralysis and demon possession. Leprosy was considered incurable in those days, and sufferers from the disease were social outcasts, to be avoided at all costs. Yet when a man with leprosy asked him for help, Jesus reached out his hand and healed him with a touch (see Mark 1:40-45). On another occasion he healed ten lepers at once (see Luke 17:11-19). On at least three occasions he raised people from the dead — the young daughter of Jairus, who was a ruling synagogue elder (Matthew 9:18-19,23-26), a young man whose body was being carried to the local cemetery (Luke 7:11‑17), and a personal friend called Lazarus who had been dead and buried for four days (John 11:1-44).
Nor were his miracles limited to physical healing. His first recorded miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding (see John 2:1‑12). Faced with a hungry crowd of 5,000 people, he fed them all with five loaves and two fish (see Matthew 14:13-21). Later he fed 4,000 with seven loaves and a few small fish (see Mark 8:1-21). When his disciples were in danger of drowning in a violent storm on the Sea of Galilee he stilled the wind and the waves with a word (see Luke 8:22-25). There were also countless other miracles of which we have no written record. John's Gospel ends with the words: ‘Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written' (John 21:25). It has been suggested that Jesus may have performed more miracles in one day than were performed in 1,000 years of Old Testament history. Be that as it may, his miracles demonstrated not only his power but his love, compassion and kindness. Why the cross for a man whose life was spent serving others in such miraculous ways?
An even greater reason for seeing the crucifixion of Jesus as an appalling travesty of justice is the Bible's insistence that he was not merely a man of outstanding moral integrity, but that he was blameless in all he ever thought, said or did. We get hints of this in remarkable testimonies given just before his death. Pontius Pilate told the chief priests and crowds, ‘I find no guilt in this man' (Luke 23:4). During the second trial, Pilate's wife urged him, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous man' (Matthew 27:19). When one of the criminals crucified at the same time called on Jesus to rescue them all, his partner in crime replied, ‘Don't you fear God … since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong' (Luke 23:40-41, NIV). As Jesus drew his final breath, the centurion in charge of the execution squad declared, ‘Surely this was a righteous man' (Luke 23:47, NIV).
These may be impressions gained over the course of just a few hours, but they point us in the right direction. Judas Iscariot's confession that he had sinned by betraying ‘innocent blood' (Matthew 27:4) is much more impressive, as he had spent three years in Jesus' company and had every opportunity to see and hear him at close hand. This convinced him not only that Jesus should not be sentenced to death, but that he had no moral flaws.
Peter, a local fisherman and one of Jesus' first twelve disciples, had also spent over three years in Jesus' company and testified that his life had been ‘without blemish' (1 Peter 1:19). As someone who at times had spoken rashly and deceitfully, he was well qualified to contrast his own behaviour with that of Jesus, who ‘committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth' (1 Peter 2:22). John, a disciple who had a particularly close relationship with Jesus, had no hesitation in calling him ‘righteous' (1 John 2:29). This is the same word used by the Roman centurion at the cross, yet from John it carries much more weight. Another New Testament writer says that Jesus was ‘holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners' (Hebrews 7:26) and that, although ‘in every respect … tempted as we are', he was ‘without sin' (Hebrews 4:15).
The apostle Paul had once been on a personal crusade to destroy the Christian church and wipe out all Jesus' followers, yet the thinking of this brilliant, highly educated man was transformed. He had once considered Jesus a blasphemous deceiver whose teaching threatened the religious life of the entire nation, yet became convinced that Jesus ‘knew no sin' (2 Corinthians 5:21). Paul was later to be flogged, tortured, imprisoned, stoned and ‘exposed to death again and again' (2 Corinthians 11:23, NIV) for his beliefs, yet he never once flinched from his conviction that Jesus had no moral or spiritual flaws. Why the cross for someone whose words, actions, life and lifestyle had convinced so many people that he was faultless?
Dr. John Blanchard is an internationally known Christian author, and his twenty-four books include two of the UK's most widely used evangelistic publications, Right with God and Ultimate Questions. Published in 2000, his 655-page volume Does God believe in Atheists? was voted 'Best Christian Book' in the inaugural UK Christian Book Awards held in 2001. Dr. Blanchard makes his home in Banstead, Surrey, U.K.