Crucifixion was not the only way in which one was put to death during Jesus' day. In fact, crucifixion was probably the least likely method a person was put to death in Jesus' day. The Romans reserved this punishment only for slaves or for freemen who had committed the most heinous crimes, at first. This cruel form of death was regarded as too barbaric for the average citizen.
As time went on the Romans began using crucifixion more frequently as a deterrent to criminal activity so that by Jesus' day it was more common, but still this form of death carried a lot of the original stigmas mentioned above. Accordingly, it should seem ironic that Jesus was crucified. Let's remember that He was God manifested in the flesh. That means He was blameless, perfect, and everything else that's good.
Clearly, He did not fit the profile of those who were normally put to death by crucifixion during His day.
So what gives here? Something this drastically wrong does not happen by chance. I submit to you that there is an awesome message in all of this that we are to grasp lest we should trivialize the awesomeness of that very fateful day.
It is important to note that it was no secret that Jesus was innocent of the charges that had been trumped up against Him as an attempt to justify His death. Even Judas, whom Satan had used to betray Jesus, realized afterward that Christ was innocent. "I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood," he told the chief priests and elders (Matthew 27:4).
When the religious leaders turned Jesus over to Pilate the governor to be crucified his wife sent word to him saying, "Have thou nothing to do with that just man" (verse 19). Finally Pilate himself, after listening to the "evidence" against Christ, was convinced He was innocent. "I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it," he told the crowd (verse 24).
Nevertheless, though He was known to be innocent, they crucified our Lord.
Jesus was crucified outside the gate of the city. Onlookers and passersby could see Him hanging on the cross. Not only was crucifixion a barbaric form of death, but also its goal was to humiliate. Moreover, it was customary to post the accusation against the victim at the site of the crucifixion. Accordingly, they "set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS" (verse 37).
But what is criminal about being a king? Everywhere I have read in the Bible the office of the king is an honorable one. The Jews were no threat to the Romans at this time. There was no plan for an insurrection. The truth is that only Jesus Himself was a threat to the Romans. He was the one Jew they could not control. His authority was higher than that of the Roman rulers because His came from heaven.
The accusation they posted at Jesus' cross was wrong. He was not the king of the Jews! He was their Savior. It is only at His glorious return that He will be crowned their King.
Nothing in the history of our world has even been so wrong as the Lord's crucifixion. The Son of God came down and was embodied in flesh and blood, and wicked men condemned Him to the cruelest form of death. However, in this great contradiction of history lies the heart of the message of the cross.
At times during Jesus' public ministry He would do or say something so extraordinary that it would arrest the disciples' attention because it was vitally important that they get what He was about to say. For instance, one day as He and the disciples left the temple the disciples marveled at the buildings. Jesus responded, "There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down" (Matthew 24:2). The disciples were blown away with that statement. They came to him privately wanting to know when this time would be, and what would be the sign of His coming and of the end of the world (verse 3). He then had their undivided attention to teach them about the signs of the end of this age.
Similarly, through Jesus' barbaric death on the cross God arrests our attention.
I am reminded of a morning worship service about two months prior to my writing this article. It was a Sunday during which we observed the Holy Communion. I was not preaching. I sat among my family in the audience. Anyway, we had this new overhead screen where we could learn of upcoming events and church news of importance.
Then we came to the time in the service to observe Holy Communion. As the elders and ushers served the audience the sacred elements, a powerful video clip appeared on the screen. It depicted the Lord's crucifixion. This video was gripping and graphic. There was no accompanying audio, but the horror on the people's faces and on the face of the man representing Christ being crucified told the story.
As I saw the man on the cross and the agony of those watching I began to cry, first quietly, but then audibly as I could no longer contain myself. My wife didn't know what was going on with me. She thought I was going through some test that I was thinking about. I looked around. I was not alone. The pastor was weeping on the podium. So was another minister nearby. Though the sanctuary was dimly lit, I could see that a number of people were weeping and drying their eyes. Even as I write about it now and think about the video, tears well up on the inside of me as I saw how they did my Lord.
The video had arrested my attention. The mood for observing the Holy Communion became very sober. But this was only an act on the screen! How much more horrific it must have been for those who actually witnessed the Passions of Jesus?
Generally speaking, those who watched Jesus hanging on the cross did not grasp the true message of the cross, but this was no surprise to God. Isaiah the prophet, some 700 years before Christ was born said these words: "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted" (Isaiah 53:4). Yes, they actually thought Christ was being crucified because God was punishing Him!
But hear me, friends. God's displeasure was not with Christ, but it was with humanity.
The mockers of Christ should have been the ones hanging on the cross, not Christ. They were the ones with whom God was angry, not Christ. They had rejected His Son. They had made the commandments of God of none effect. "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way," said Isaiah the Lord's prophet (verse 6).
So what is the true message of the cross? It is that man's transgressions against God were so abominable that when He placed the sins of the world upon His holy Son as an atoning sacrifice, only the most barbaric form of death known to man could pacify God's anger. Thanks be to God for His indescribable love for us.