Trial & Execution

This story needs no introduction. Its emblem is worn around necks, worked in stained glass, and sculpted outside of churches. After three years of storytelling and laughter, righteous anger and proclaiming grace and justice wherever he goes, Jesus finds himself mocked and hated at Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. Days after being heralded as the conquering king, he faces the death of a traitor and murderer. The Lamb of God was born to die, and now it is time for the sacrifice.

The account of the trial and execution of Jesus is found in detail in all of the Gospels; the hours of his trial, crucifixion, and death fulfill prophecies, distill the themes of his ministry, and determine the fates of the most major players in the Gospels. There is far too much for us to explore every detail here; so take some time to read the story in full: in Matthew 26:47-ch.27; Mark 15; Luke 22:47-ch. 23; and John 18-19.

Instead of focusing on the events of Jesus’ sacrifice, I want to talk about the object – and later, symbol – at the center of it: the cross itself. The cross, or crucifix (which refers specifically to images of Jesus nailed to the cross) has become the major symbol of Christianity. Sometimes, the cross is given almost supernatural powers as a symbol, such as when characters in horror movies use them to fend off demons or vampires. The cross is so powerful that professional artistry and craftsmanship are not even required in order to communicate its meaning. Whether sculpted, painted, hand-drawn, or quickly thrown together with a couple of sticks, the idea of the cross communicates its meaning even in the simplest form.

On the other hand, the cross is often trivialized and made into a fashion statement. Go to a store like Forever 21 or Hot Topic and you’ll see crosses emblazoned on shirts, sweaters, pants, dresses, and earrings, to name a few. When a cross is printed in neon pink across a pair of leggings a hundred times, its meaningful nature to the wearer becomes questionable at best.

The cross is so ubiquitous in Christianity, that we sometimes seem to forget it was a torture device. Crucifixion was an excruciating process, reserved for the worst criminals – you can read about it (in graphic detail) here.

The horror of the cross becomes more evident in light of the fact that the ringleaders of the French Revolution, as part of their rejection of religion, started wearing miniature guillotines around their necks instead of crosses. While their choice of jewelry does emphasize the cross’s status as a torture device, the fact that victims of the guillotine were supposed to stay dead makes the substitution slightly awkward.

It becomes too easy to distance ourselves from what the cross is – the place where Jesus was scourged, beaten, spit at, impaled, and finally, killed. On the cross, Jesus felt that his father had abandoned him at his time of greatest suffering and need, crying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV). For the friends and family taking their beloved’s broken and bloody body down from the rough wood of his execution site, the cross was a symbol of horror and defeat. “Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry,” writes poet W. H. Auden, “but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith.”

And yet, the cross is at the center of more Christian art, poetry, and music than any other moment in the Bible – for example, the beloved hymn “The Old Rugged Cross,” which brings the singer comfort, not horror.

How should we see the cross? How must it have seemed to Jesus’ followers as the sun set on the night of a day that we call “Good Friday” in retrospect? Is the cross too horrible for poetry?

Talk Back:

  • Why do you think the cross became the symbol of Christianity, and not something from a different aspect of Jesus’s ministry, such as a star, a dove, or an empty tomb? Is the cross more than a symbol?
  • As Jesus was on the cross, he asked God why he had been abandoned. In that moment, do you think he believed in the Resurrection? Why or why not? Look at Luke 18:31-33. Does this seem like Jesus expected the Resurrection? Why, then, does he seem so distressed about his death when he prays in Gethsemane, or why does he cry out on the cross that God has “forsaken” him?
  • While the cross is arguably the most popular image for Christianity, and possibly even the most popular story from the Bible for Christians, a lot of peculiar things happen during the crucifixion that are not spoken of very often. Reflect on some of these:
    • Jesus cries out a phrase which Matthew and Mark both record in transliterated Aramaic for their Greek-reading audiences: “My God, My God [Eli, Eli] why have you forsaken me?” They also record that the crowd, upon hearing him say “Eli, Eli” (or Eloi, Eloi in some manuscripts), theorized that he might be calling Elijah to come and save him. Why would the audience think this would happen? (Tip: See Malachi 4:5-6; Mark 9:2-13; Matthew 11:1-15)
    • Matthew 27:44 records that the “rebels” who were crucified beside Jesus “hurled insults at him”, while Luke 22:39-43 records a more two-sided conversation between the three people being executed. Does this seem like a contradiction to you? Why or why not?
    • Matthew 27:51-53 reports that there was an earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death, and that many people who had died were resurrected. Read this passage:“51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”
    • Do you think this means that the resurrected people waited several days in their tombs before coming out, or that they were actually resurrected at the same time as Jesus and their graves were merely opened by the earthquake. Why do you think this was considered worth reporting?
  • There are different reports about Jesus receiving a drink. Matthew 27:48 says that someone gave Jesus a sponge filled with wine vinegar to drink; Luke 23:36 reports that it was the soldiers who offered him the wine vinegar; John 19:28-30 tells us that Jesus was thirsty and requested the drink, one of the final things he would do before dying.
    • Isn’t this is a strange request to grant to someone who is being tortured and killed? He has been cut and lashed and beaten, he is suffocating on a cross, but they are willing to grant him a drink if he is thirsty. What do you think it means, if anything more? Or was it simply a genuine request on the part of Jesus? Matthew 27:34 notes that just prior to being crucified, Jesus was offered “wine mixed with gall” (or myrhh) - which Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrase explains was a “mild painkiller”. Why do you think Jesus refused to receive this drink, but was willing to take the second one later? Read this article from desiringGod for an explanation based on a scholarly Bible commentary. (This is not a wholesale endorsement of this website, just a link to a helpful commentary.)
  • What is another important aspect of the trial and execution of Jesus that we didn’t discuss? Why is it important? What does it teach us?

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