The Crucified Christ:

 Thoughts on the intentional sufferings of the Messiah

 

I have a few passages to read today, you can turn to them if you want, but they are all relatively short. I am intending on reading them with the guiding thought being, as Bruce Shelby says, that: “Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central event the humiliation of God.”

 

Isaiah 53: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities…He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth…Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin.”

 

Luke 24:26: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things”

 

1 Corinthians 1.18-19: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”

 

Hebrews 12.2: “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”.

 

If as a rule, you want to be a successful group, or to spread a product in society it is best not to cause offence or to try to stand out by making distasteful gestures.The early Christian community though didn’t get this, at least with one particular custom: their habit of putting the words  “Cross” and “Christ” so close together in the identification of their faith. To an ancient mind this was offensive, crude and perplexing. Again remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians “we preached Christ crucified…foolishness… a stumbling block.” Of course we know the cross was a shameful act and according to Deuteronomy 21 that anyone who hanged upon a tree was cursed; while Christ, meaning “anointed one” was someone who was glorious, someone set apart and exalted. These two images do not fit together easily. But because of our familiarity with the story of Jesus we perhaps so easily lose sight of this curious juxtaposition and, if not vocally ask, in practice assume of course Jesus came to suffer and died- how else could the events of his life have unfolded? But we are here this morning, as many of us are each Sunday to remember his death, to physically break and recall this breaking of the Messiah’s body.

To help us remove this unhelpful familiarity I am going to try to take us back to adopt the mindset of an ancient Graeco-Roman or Jew, and perhaps better enable us to understand what the early Christians were trying to do in proclaiming this crucified Christ so prominently. In particular I think that there are two concepts that we need to grasp to allow us to do this. The first is the ancient concept of humility. We have seen from the verses that we read at the start, and we can also think of Philippians 2:5-11 which I haven’t quote for time, that the humility that Jesus showed in going to the cross was an important component for the early Christian understanding about Christ and his character. We might perhaps think that humility is universal a virtue. It is not. In the ancient world they had a concept called φιλότιμα, literally the love of honour. Across all ancient Mediterranean cultures honour was universally regarded as being the ultimate asset for human beings to possess, and shame the ultimate deficit. You viewed your life through the prism of whether actions would give you honour or shame. Uppermost in an ancient father’s mind was not whether his children would be happy, but whether they would bring honour to themselves and their family.

We have started to become aware of some cultures today that have retained such a worldview. Think of, for example, the “honour killings” that have featured in the British press recently. To us it is perhaps utterly perplexing, and rightly abhorrent to judge a family member through the scales of honour or shame, but for some people and certain cultures this is the guiding parameters of their lives—and the ancient Graeco-Roman and Jewish world was one of them. So in the moral maxims that the Delpic Canon contains, which is an ancient Greek account that is meant to outline every possible moral virtue —and it lists 147 of them— there is no mention of humility. In the world in which Jesus and the early Christians found themselves you are not to be humble. They did have a word for humility (ταπεινόω) but it had negative connotations of “being made low.” Only if you were before a King or Emperor would it be acceptable for you to make yourself visibly “humble”; but you do not make yourself low before an equal or lesser person, and you did not assume humility as an ongoing part of your character or personality. So by pointing to Jesus and saying that he is praiseworthy for being humiliated is to subvert and challenges society’s norms.

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Dali’s “St John of the Cross”

The second idea we have to apprehend is the offensiveness of crucifixion. Josephus a Jewish writer who wrote just after the time of Christ simply called crucifixion “the most wretched of deaths”, while some Roman thinkers (e.g. Varro) openly questioned why their state would employ such a barbaric practice. It was a punishment that they held was only appropriate to be given to non-Roman citizens, and never to be sanctioned on those of a high rank. So, if you know your church history, Paul, who was a citizen, was said to have been beheaded, while Peter, the rural Palestinian fisherman, was crucified (albeit upside down). This context surely adds another dimension to Philippians 2 when it says that Christ, who was in the form of God (the highest rank that there is!) took on the form of a slave, and “endured death– even death upon up upon a cross.”

The word cross was in fact a swear word that only the crudest people in society would use. Cicero, one of the leading politicians in Rome opined that: “the very word cross should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears…the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man”. So the word “cross” shouldn’t even pass your lips in polite society, yet this was a message that a non-Christian visitor  over hearing an early Christian gathering would keep being assaulted with. We sit in a church that has inherited a faith whose proponents introduced and defined themselves by pointing to figure upon a cross and trying to convince people that he is Christ, and, indeed, God.

But why did “cross” cause so much distress in polite society. Well for the ancients, and early Christians understood this, crucifixion was a shorthand, a cipher, for extreme and public humiliation. Its aim was to violate this honour-shame dynamic that we have just talked about– to shame the person. The executioners were given free rein to humiliate the person as much as they wanted and were encouraged to do so with imagination. So another Roman, this time called Quintillian says: “whenever we crucify the guilty, the most crowed roads are chosen, where most people can see and be moved by this fear. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to the exemplary effect.” While savage and heinous the Romans chose crucifixion mainly because of the evident humiliation that it caused the person. So when we turn to the gospels, what do we see? Jesus being spat upon, being stripped naked, being whipped and his back scourged, having his face struck, quietly enduring mocking and derision, having a sign designed to ridicule his teachings placed above his head, and having thorns placed upon his head. The authorities weren’t just torturing him they were publicly shaming him, he is being shown to be abjectly humiliated and the gospels are wanting people to see this in all its detail. Now when you realize that the gospels only record a small amount of Jesus’ teachings and the activities that he carried out over his three year mission, yet alone his entire life and childhood, and that we could probably read about all of this within a few hours, why are they devoting all this space to show us all the humiliation of their leader—especially when this is so counter-cultural? Well they are trying to tell us something. They are trying to draw and direct people’s attention on something important, subversive, and jolting– the intentional suffering of God for humanity’s sake. So we can now perhaps better

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The Alexamos Graffitio

understand just how real Paul’s statement was when he talked about the ‘folly’ of the message of the crucified Jesus. He is not speaking in riddles or using it as an abstract cipher. He is expressing the harsh experience of his missionary preaching and the offence that this message caused– yet he kept on preaching it. Non-Christians can perhaps get this better than we do. There is an inscription dated to the 200’s A.D. carved in plaster on a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome, it is a picture of a man attached to a cross who has the head of a donkey. Beside him there is the image of a someone who is pictured worshipping the  crucified donkey man and underneath   “Alexamos—worshipping God.” Its almost certainly someone in Rome mocking a Christian because of their faith. While a Christian writer named Justin in his book that he wrote to defend Christianity to the Roman world says: “They say that our madness consists in the fact that we put a crucified man in the second place after the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of the world.”

 

So what is the point? Well everyone knows that God is powerful, so why would he choose to manifest himself in this squalid, horrendous shameful position, and even have purposed it this way? Well, you see the Caesars  during the lifetime of Jesus styled themselves as “saviour”. It was marked on their inscriptions and coins. But hardly anyone would have seen the Emperor. Even if they were visiting their location they would largely move through the central square and promenades, not the shanty towns and peasant, not the rural huts; they certainly wouldn’t be prepared to dress up like a peasant, eat like them and live like them for even a day. But here God says that he is the saviour of the world, and that he has entered our world as one of us. We don’t have to struggle to climb up to meet God, he has come down to us. It is the cross though in particular that proclaims that something new has come about, something objective, and that the way we are to think about God has changed. In the Old Testament when describing God it has to use distant abstract language, but with the incarnation we can see God in a new way, and the pivotal image that the early Church gave us was that of God on a cross. We can point to God’s love now, not just describe it in distant academic language, and it is that of a rural carpenter from Palestine who was tortured, ridiculed, beaten and humiliated for us and our sins. The message is that the cross doesn’t just say that something significant happened over those three days 2,000 years ago, it wasn’t like some celebrity jetting into a poverty stricken country handing out platitudes, making a gesture and then flying away again. Christians believe that Jesus’ life communicates the character of God to us. Here we see the important insight that God was prepared to be the slaughtered lamb; to be born and live as a Jewish peasant and have a Roman spear thrust in his side and thorns hammered into his forehead and nails driven through his hands. Such actions provide us with an arresting pledge of God’s commitment, and intentions for man. As the late German historian of early Christianity Martin Hengel said:

 

“You see the death of Jesus on the cross is very much more than a religious symbol, say of the uttermost readiness of a man for suffering and sacrifice; it is more than just an ethical code which calls for discipleship, though it is all this as well. It is an action that is designed to communicate to us, the action through which he establishes the effective basis of our salvation.”

 

This is not something that you would readily make up. It is not a clever marketing plot. It’s a hard counter cultural message. It is designed to jolt us, to grab our attention. It tells us that God took the initiative over our sin and that he did so in a provocative way that tells us about his character, the extent of our love. So, of course, what happened when Jesus was crucified? The temple curtain, seen as representing the inability of ordinary people to enter into the presence of God was torn in two. God is here, Emmanuel, God with us– physically. This is a hard message, for many Jews, and certainly anti-Trinitarian groups and religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims (for various reasons) do not like or accept it. To them it can be seen as being repugnant, distasteful—even an impossibility or a contradiction. It is a message that is unique to Christianity, and while we quite rightly marvel and get reassurance that Christ has been elevated after his resurrection the gospels also purposefully direct our attention to his humiliation and suffering.

Prayer: Dear Jesus we glory in the fact that you now sit at the right hand of the Father, invested with the honour that you had before the world began; but thank you too for your purposeful love that knew no bounds, for your intention to provide us with salvation, and your willingness to suffer for us and to communicate this in such a potent way. All of us acknowledge our failings, the inevitable lack of focus we all experience in our daily lives to reflect upon this, and many other truths. Please attend to us and be in our minds as we seek to live for you in the rest of the week. In the Lord Jesus name amen.

 

Hymn: “Thank you for the Cross Lord”

Thank you for the cross Lord
Thank you for the price You paid
Bearing all my sin and shame
In love You came and gave amazing grace

Thank you for this love Lord
Thank you for the nail pierced hands
Washed me in Your cleansing flow
Now all I know Your forgiveness and embrace

Worthy is the Lamb
Seated on the throne
Crown You now with many crowns
You reign victorious

High and lifted up
Jesus, Son of God
The Darling of Heaven crucified
Worthy is the Lamb
Worthy is the Lamb

Thank you for the cross Lord
Thank you for the price You paid
Bearing all my sin and shame
In love You came and gave amazing grace

Recommended Further Reading:

 

Martin Hengel Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. (trans. J. Bowden) Ausburg Press, 1977.

Alister McGrath What Was God Doing on the Cross? Zondervan, 1993.

John Dickson Humilitas. Zondervan, 2011.