One of the best-known details of the crucifixion is that Jesus was crucified in plain view just outside the city walls of Jerusalem.
Like countless other men who’d been crucified by the Romans, Jesus and the two criminals with him were put on display as a warning to the city’s residents and visitors.
In the days of the Roman Empire, there were no hidden executions or efforts to develop “humane” ways of carrying out state-sponsored killing. Quite the opposite, actually. Roman soldiers literally experimented with ways to make crucifixions more unpleasant than ever.
Imagine growing up in Jerusalem or any other part of the vast Roman Empire. The police force was armed, unpredictable and violent. Political leaders cared far more about political peace than the actual guilt or innocence of its prisoners. Every child in the area got the message quickly and clearly.
If you break the rules of Rome, you will suffer unimaginably painful consequences.
As a result, most people in Israel lived quiet lives in a very difficult environment. Few were willing to participate in anything that remotely resembled insurrection.
And yet they prayed for a king. They longed for a Messiah. They begged God for relief.
Many thought they’d found their hope in Jesus. He had a power that was clearly above any power of any other man on earth. Could you imagine what he could do if he took on Rome? He could control the weather, train his troops to walk on water, heal his injured and even raise those who’d fallen after they’d been killed! If Jesus wanted to lead a rebellion, Rome wouldn’t have a prayer!
But the story had come to an end in a most unexpected way. Jesus had been arrested with barely a struggle. When he had the opportunity to do a miracle in that critical moment, he healed a man who was on the side of his enemies! Peter swung his sword, cutting off the ear of the servant of the high priest. However, instead of urging his men to fight, Jesus rebuked Peter and then healed the servant’s wound! (Luke 22:50-51 has the story.)
By morning, Jesus was hanging on a cross. He would hang there for six excruciating hours, until he finally breathed his last.
Amazing, really, that the symbol of Christianity would be the cross.
It was an instrument of death. It was a blood-soaked reminder of the power of Rome. To all who were present, the cross appeared to be the end of Jesus and the end of his movement.
Only the most amazing turn of events could have ever transformed the cross into a symbol of hope, grace and love.
It’s ironic, really. If the Romans had hidden their executions, we might have wondered if Jesus had actually died. We might have wondered if the resurrection was a myth or actual history.
But the cross wasn’t hidden. There was no doubt whatsoever that Jesus died. There were too many witnesses. There was too much blood. Too many people double checked to make sure the cross had claimed another life.
Jesus was dead. His body was prepared for burial and left in a tomb. No one expected to see him alive again.
Jesus was as dead as you’ll be one day.
This, of course, was not the end of the Jesus story. And by the power of the cross, death doesn’t have to be the end of your story, either.
“You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away,” wrote the Apostle Paul. “Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-15, NLT)
What had been meant as a public triumph over Jesus by the cross had been turned into a very public triumph over death by Jesus on the cross.
Perhaps it wasn’t so much the Romans who wanted you to see the crucifixion.
Maybe the One who really wanted you to see it … was Jesus.
Previously: The Fifth Cup.