The Most Evil Political Act in History (Part 1)
There is an issue that is more controversial than any political matter. It’s more contentious than any election or candidate. It’s more challenging than the most profound problems of nuclear physics and space exploration. It’s the cause of more arguments than any other person, idea, or belief.
I’m talking about the cross of Jesus Christ.
Over the past decade, the government of China has removed thousands of crosses from church facilities. In places such as Nigeria and India, Christian churches are targets of Muslim and Hindu extremists.
Why? Why is the cross a source of enmity, a target of hostility? Why does it create rage and hatred?
First, some background. The crucifixion of Jesus was a political act. Members of the Jewish Sanhedrin and Rome’s designated governor, Pontius Pilate, worked together to execute the Messiah-King. As to the Jewish leaders, theologian Mark Strauss notes, in “first-century Judaism … which religion and politics were inseparable. Jesus’s death was no doubt motivated by the perceived threat felt by the religio-political powers of his day.”
What of Pilate? The Jewish writer Philo, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt when Pilate ruled in Jerusalem, described Pilate as being “inflexible, stubborn, and cruel.” Strauss writes that Pilate’s “governorship was characterized by a general disdain toward his Jewish subjects and brutal suppression of opposition. At the same time, his support from Rome was shaky at best, and he feared antagonizing the Jewish leadership lest they complain to the emperor.”
Jewish leaders and a Roman governor fearful of losing power: like authoritarians throughout history, they took the simplest path to maintaining their positions — they eliminated its main threat. In this case, that was the Son of God.
As to the act of crucifixion, when a person was crucified, his arms were draped over a cross-bar called a patibulum. It’s likely that this is what Jesus carried on His way to Mt. Calvary. Estimates of its weight vary, but one suggests it might have been as much as 110 pounds.
Bear in mind that the Lord carried this heavy cross-bar after being scourged. This probably involved the use of a vicious instrument called a flagellum, a long-handled whip with several leather cords onto which were attached pieces of metal, nails, or bone. You can imagine what this kind of weapon would do to living flesh.
So, Jesus, bloody, dehydrated, and exhausted, was forced to carry a heaving patibulum through the streets of Jerusalem. It’s no wonder that He collapsed and that Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry it. Once on Mt. Calvary, the cross-bar was hoisted onto a 9-12 foot post already stationed in the ground. From there, death could take from a few hours to four days.
Victims of crucifixion died of various things. Some died of asphyxiation, unable to gain their breath as their bodies sagged. Others would die of dehydration, exhaustion, loss of blood.
But what’s often not understood is that the cross was not only an instrument of torture but of humiliation. One theologian has described crucifixion as “the most publicly humiliating and shameful death of a slave or common criminal.” This is why the apostle Paul wrote that Jesus “became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Note the word “even” — Paul is emphasizing that not only was the God-Man willing to die, but that He willingly experienced a form of death designed to humiliate its victim.
The writer of Hebrews makes the same point, saying in Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus “despised the shame.” The Greek word used for “despised” means “to look down on” — in other words, to hold in contempt. Jesus didn’t care about the effort to humiliate Him. He was devoted to serving His Father and focused on the joy of returning to the eternal fellowship enjoyed by the Triune God in eternity.
The Roman political and military regime and the Jewish leaders who wanted Him dead thought that by exposing Him to public humiliation, they would discourage anyone from following Him. As 2,000 years of history have proven, they were mistaken.
To His family would be attached the shame of His death, as well. A contemporary analogy would be that if your son or sibling were executed in a gas chamber, you might move to another city or change your name. No such option existed for Jesus’s mother or earthly family. This is one reason Jesus commended his mother Mary to the apostle John — He wanted her to be well cared for and looked after (John 19:26-27).
Finally, then, Jesus died. When He was speared by a Roman soldier, blood and water poured out. Medically, this is typical of either something called hypovolemic shock or asphyxiation — we don’t need to get into the biology of it, but both produce a build-up of fluid around the heart.
The pain Jesus endured before and during His crucifixion was tremendous. The prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming Messiah, “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and His form beyond that of the children of mankind” (Isaiah 52:12). This is brutality personified.
But the far greater pain was that of becoming sin for us and bearing the eternal penalty we deserve for our sins. More on this in my next essay on the greatest political wrong — and greatest act of divine love — in history.
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.