The Lessons of the Cross
Scripture demands that a Christian take up his cross and follow Christ. We cannot fulfill that command unless we know exactly what it means and how to accomplish the task.

The world worships images of a crucified Christ. Few realize that Satan has presented in the crucifixion a defeated Savior. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Do we fully understand what happened on the “cross”? Do we realize the tremendous price that was paid for the sins of the world?

Paul tells us that Christ “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). In the last few hours of Jesus’s life, what agony did He endure—what shame did He suffer? And why? Knowing the answers to those questions will better equip us to fulfill the command in Matthew 10:38: “And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.”

Pain is a relative thing—some can stand more than others. No human, however, has ever experienced pain the way Jesus did on that black and gloomy day at Golgotha. We use the word excruciating to mean “an extreme.” Excruciate (a Latin word, ex meaning “out of, from”; cruciate: cross) literally means “from the cross.” Excruciating, then, takes its meaning from the agony such as that suffered on the cross.

Descent Into Destiny

The Bible as History, by Werner Keller, states that of all the journeys undertaken by Christ, the last one from Capernaum to Jerusalem can be traced with most certainty. Because He was refused passage by the Samaritans (Luke 9:51-56), Christ went by “the coasts of Judaea by the farther side of Jordan” (Mark 10:1). His journey took Him through Jericho, where He stayed with a Jewish tax collector (Luke 19:2). Then He continued over the dusty road which wound 23 more miles to Jerusalem. The trip took three days by foot.

Related stories:

“How Did Christ Die and Why Is It Important?”

“The Cross: Pagan Symbol or Symbol of Faith?”

Toward the end of that trip, Jerusalem would have come into view, and “when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it” (Luke 19:41). From the town of Bethany, He dispatched two disciples to Jerusalem to arrange for an upper meeting room (Luke 22:7-13).

On that evening in a.d. 31, as Jesus and His disciples gathered for the last Passover, He was well aware of the agony laying in wait for Him. He told them that His body and His blood were to be “given” for them (Matthew 26:26-29).

Following the meal, Judas Iscariot departed; and the rest of the disciples partook of the changed symbols of Passover: “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives” (Matthew 26:30), to a small garden called Gethsemane, from the Hebrew Gat Shmanim, meaning “oil press.” Here Christ prayed so intensely that drops of sweat—“as it were great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44)—were “pressed” from Him. At the end of this ordeal, Christ, fully committed to His course, went forward to eat the bread and drink the cup of destiny.

Offensive War

Jesus waged offensive spiritual war! When He allowed Himself to go through the excruciating agony of the next few hours, He was on the attack!

Since the time of His birth, Christ was Satan’s primary target. Satan tried to kill Him when Herod slew the innocent children (Matthew 2:16); he tried in the great temptation (Matthew 4). But he was never successful, because Christ was never a victim. At no time was the death of the Son of God up to Satan or common men. It was His own decision from beginning to end, and this is never more clearly seen than from the next sequence of events.

As the Son of God came from the garden, He was met by a group of men. “Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons. Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, Whom seek ye? They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus saith unto them, I am he. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them. As soon then as he had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground” (John 18:3-6).

The word he is in italics, and therefore not in the original text. Ordinarily it might be implied, but in this case it obscures the meaning. “I am” was a name of the God of Israel. It means “the Eternal, Self-Existent One.” In the book of Exodus, this is the name wherewith God identified Himself to Moses and the children of Israel (Exodus 3:13-14).

When Christ pronounced His primary name as the God of Israel, that name carried power and authority! (1 Corinthians 10:2-4; John 1:1-14). Modern researchers have had differing estimates for the total number in that mob. Some have placed it as high as 300 strong. Whatever the amount, the power in just speaking His holy name, “I am,” drove them all backwards and threw them all to the ground! Not one of those men came close enough even to touch Jesus! That was, and is, real power!

Yet, after asking the mob again whom they sought, and they replied “Jesus of Nazareth,” He said, “I told you that I am ….” This time, however, the band and captain and officers of the Jews simply took Jesus and bound Him (John 18:7, 12). They just walked up and laid hands on the God of Israel. Astounding! Obviously, Jesus gave Himself up by restraining His godly power. They didn’t “take” Him as if He objected, they merely “took hold” of Him and bound Him. Christ had plainly said, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15).

The Illegal Trial

Most religious commentators understand that the trial of Christ was illegal by both Roman and Jewish law. In both instances there are set procedures for the taking into custody, trial and sentencing of a criminal. In every aspect of Christ’s trial, the laws were violated. We can hardly be surprised—Christ was innocent of any crime. He testified so of Himself (Matthew 12:7).

The illegalities are too numerous to fully list and explain here, but some of them, briefly, were: Trials could occur only in the regular meeting places of the Sanhedrin (not in the palace of the high priest); they could not occur on the eve of the Sabbath or feast days, or at night, because a sentence of “guilty” could only be pronounced on the day following the trial; one witness was not enough to convict a man—a matter had to be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15); obviously, the testimony of the witnesses had to agree, but in the trial of Christ, “Many bare false witness against him, but their witness agreed not together” (Mark 14:56). Nevertheless, He was found guilty of blasphemy—a charge which would later, also illegally, be changed to insurrection against the government.

Pilate, already worried that the uproar in Judea would reach the ears of Caesar (and Caesar did not like his provinces in uproar), quickly washed His hands of the whole affair—literally—and handed the Innocent over to His fate. But before he released Jesus, Matthew 27:26 says Pilate allowed Him to be scourged.

The Whip

During a flogging, a victim was normally tied to a post, leaving his back entirely exposed. The Romans used a whip, called a flagrum or flagellum, which consisted of a handle to which leather cords were attached, at the end of which were small pieces of bone and metal. The number of strikes is not recorded in the gospels—Roman law did not put any limits on the number given, but the number in Jewish law was set at 40 (Deuteronomy 25:3). This was later reduced to 39 by the authorities to prevent excessive blows through a counting error. Consider the huge inconsistency in the legal minds of the times: They were afraid to break the laws given to them by the God of Israel, but didn’t hesitate to murder the very One who spoke that law.

During a flogging, the skin would be gradually stripped from the back, exposing a bloody mass of muscle and bone. “As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men” (Isaiah 52:14). Extreme blood loss occurred from this beating, often weakening the victim to the point of being unconscious. Jesus never passed out, however.

In many cases, whipping was enough—the victim simply died from the beating. Not Jesus. He stood silently, accepting every blow: “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).

Even while His flesh was being stripped away—each bit of bone hissing through the air at the end of its cord, biting into the flesh, then being jerked away, tearing the meat with it and spraying His blood, Christ did not lose consciousness. He knew He was paying the penalty for our physical sins. Every blow meant that all who would ever need divine healing would receive it: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

Then, after the long sleepless night, the infamous trials, the mocking and ridicule, and after the horrible beating which He had just endured, soldiers stripped Him, clothed Him with a scarlet robe, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and jammed it on His head. They put a staff in His right hand and knelt in front of Him—mocking Him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on Him, and took the staff and struck Him on the head again and again (Matthew 27:28-30).

He was finally led out of the city walls to Golgotha, “the place of the skull,” to be crucified.

The Shame and the Agony

The mental imagery you may be visualizing is not pleasant, and it isn’t the purpose here to wallow in the gore of that day. But in order for us to take up our cross, we must understand what it meant for Christ to take up His. It is, perhaps, significant that the only place in the King James Version where the word agony is mentioned is in Luke 22:44: “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

The Greek word for agony means to be “engaged in combat.” The agony of the prayer in Gethsemane had prepared Christ to engage in combat. Now He willingly bent to grasp the beam that would receive the nails. When He lifted that pole, our Messiah was locked into offensive warfare.

Psalm 22:16-17 tells us, “For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet. I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.” This is a picture of the shame of the crucifixion. It is such a shame to the Jews even to this day that they translate the latter part, “like lions they [threaten] my hands and my feet” (The 24 Books of the Bible After the Best Jewish Authorities, Isaak Leeser translation, Hebrew and English). They simply removed the “piercing”—the crucifixion picture from Psalm 22.

To the Jews, there is a special dread of being nailed to a tree. Perhaps that is because they were taught in Deuteronomy 21:22-23, “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God) ….” Being cursed by God was the shame of the stake.

We are told by Bible authorities that the practice of crucifixion originated with the Persians and was later passed on to the Carthaginians and the Phoenicians. The Romans perfected it as a method of execution that caused maximal pain and suffering over a period of time. Those sentenced to be crucified included slaves, provincials and the lowest types of criminals.

The cross commonly portrayed as the one Christ hung on was not the one used in the time of His crucifixion. That is a false, pagan concept. At times, a Tau cross—with the beam across the top of the upright stake (forming a T)—was used. Christ’s cross, however, was simply an upright pole. In fact, the Greek word used in the gospels for cross is the word stauros, meaning an upright pole.

The stake, or pole, was put on the ground and the victim laid upon it. Then nails, about 7 inches long and 1 centimeter in diameter, were driven through the flesh into the wood. The points would go into the vicinity of the median nerve, causing shocks of pain to radiate through the arms. The feet were then nailed, the knees being bent into a very uncomfortable position. Finally, a sign was hung above the victim’s head identifying the man on the stake.

Then the pole bearing the man was raised and allowed to drop into the hole prepared for it. As the butt of the pole slammed down, the pain was beyond imagination. As the stake stood upright, there was tremendous strain on the hands and wrists—the arms and shoulders. This often resulted in a dislocation of the shoulder and elbow joints. The arms, extending upward, placed the rib cage in a fixed position which made it extremely difficult to exhale, and impossible to take a full breath. The victim would only be able to take very shallow breaths.

As time passed, the muscles, from the loss of blood, lack of oxygen and the fixed position of the body, would undergo severe cramps and spasmodic contractions. “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death” (Psalm 22:14-15).

As if He had not suffered enough, the real agony—the real “offensive combat”—would now begin. A lack of oxygen would develop and pain in the wrists and arms would increase, until the victim was forced to raise his body upward, thereby transferring the weight of the body to the feet. Breathing would become easier, but with the weight of the body now exerted on the feet, the pain in the feet and legs increased. When that pain became unbearable, the victim again slumped downward, with the full weight of the body pulling on the hands and wrists and again stretching the intercostal muscles. Thus, the victim alternated between lifting his body in order to breathe and slumping down to relieve pain in the feet. Lifting, then slumping, in a macabre sort of motion which might have resembled the undulating motion of a snake (John 3:14).

Normally the victim would eventually become exhausted, or lapse into unconsciousness and no longer be able to lift his body off the sedulum. In this position, with the respiratory muscles essentially paralyzed, the victim would suffocate and die. Christ, however, remained alert and continued to live.

Isaiah 59:2 says that sins separate us from God, and that He hides His face from the sinner so that He does not hear. Since Christ now became sin for us, the Father had to turn away from His beloved Son. The trial was hard for both of them, but it was necessary to be able to bring many into the Family of God.

So, for the first and only time in His life, Christ knew what it was like to be separated from the Father. For us, sinful humans that we are, being estranged from God is not new. We have often sinned. But for this sinless being, who had always enjoyed perfect harmony with the One who became His Father, it was the worst part of the ordeal. That, and only that extreme agony of being separated, would make Him cry out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

A Field of Honor

Jesus had testified, “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:17-18).

Finally, “one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19:34). After being stabbed by the spear, Jesus said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46) and died. For the next three days and nights, God the Father would be alone, but He and the word had been given a perfect sacrifice.

Throughout this ordeal, we can see one major lesson: Christ presented Himself to the torment. Never at any time was He dragged unwillingly. He was never the victim, the beaten or the overpowered. He took the abuse, the crown of thorns and the whip. He presented Himself to the stake. It was all-out, determined, offensive warfare!

Christ was not defeated on the stake! He was not defeated by death! Instead, His death was the victory over death (1 Corinthians 15:54-55), and He was the victor on that field of honor. Oh, how Satan must have been furious at that hour! As the last breath left the lungs of Christ, Satan must have known he was doomed to fail. He had been defeated by Christ through offensive warfare.

Take Up the Cross

Christ has now called us to engage in offensive warfare. Each of us must do battle with Satan. “And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Taking up the cross is a term directly associated with offensive warfare! It is a voluntary decision. It requires action.

Some see taking up our cross to mean just giving something up. One commentator has written that it means going to our death, giving up and separating ourselves from all that we had—our rights, our friends, our body and blood, “and even your ‘god,’ to follow Him.” Actually, this commentator described the action we should have taken at baptism. The surrendering of our own will, and our way of life.

Taking up our cross means more than that. It means following Jesus Christ, the Captain of our salvation (Hebrews 2:10), to the battle. It means engaging in offensive war to get the Work done! Wars are not won by hiding in foxholes. Wars are not won by a limited effort. Offensive warfare means going on the attack—taking the battle to the enemy.

How do we do this? By following the conduct of those who faithfully “take up their cross.” When we are told to take up our cross and follow Him, we are being told to be valiant soldiers, ignoring hardships, enduring struggle. It means we must keep our eyes on the true goal and never quit—never give up!

From the Archives: Royal Vision, March-April 2000