Word Study #34 — The Cross

As we approach this topic, please remember that it is in no way intended to diminish or disparage the enormous impact upon the human family of Jesus’ act, in allowing himself to be tortured and put to death by people who had rejected the invitation to enlist in his Kingdom. “He came to his own (world, people), and his own refused to welcome him” (Jn.1:11) summarizes incalculable suffering.
I do, however, intend to put that event into a more Biblical perspective, by calling your attention to the overwhelmingly greater attention paid by the New Testament writers to the glorious truth and power of his Resurrection! By becoming narrowly fixated only upon the cross, (nearly, if not altogether, to the point of idolatry), well-meaning writers and speakers have badly skewed the Biblical message.

It was very difficult to find historical information about “crosses” or “crucifixion.” The early classical historians and writers, Herodotus and Thucydydes in the 5th century BC, and Homer at least a century earlier, used stauros to refer to any kind of stakes or pilings driven into the ground as a foundation for a building, as fencing, or as fortifications. Not until Polybius in the second century BC, and Didorus Siculus in the first, does Liddell/Scott mention any use of a “cross” as an instrument of execution. In the first two centuries AD, of course, it is common in Plutarch, Josephus, and Lucian, among others. I found one suggestion that the Roman Empire may have copied the practice from Carthage, in North Africa; but apparently that particular form of brutality came on the scene comparatively late in ancient history, and was inflicted primarily upon the lowest classes of criminals.
Most writers of “history” tend to concentrate on gruesome descriptions of the process (which was indeed horrible), and leap from there into complex doctrinal dissertations that have no New Testament basis. They frequently try to relate it to the Old Testament sacrificial system and its law – conveniently ignoring the fact that in that system, the prescribed form of execution was stoning. I do not intend to argue the fine points in which such writers/speakers delight. I would only ask, as many times before, “What did Jesus say?” Can one claim to be proclaiming Jesus, without consulting him?

Of the 28 occurrences of stauros in the New Testament, eleven are simply describing the circumstances of Jesus’ death. The only other references in the Gospels are the parallel passages in Mt.10:38 and 16:24, Mk.8:34 and 10:21, and Lk.9:23 and 14:21. These are considered in the previous post (#33). The verb form, stauroo, to crucify, is a bit more frequent, with 46 New Testament uses, of which 25 are in accounts of Jesus’ trial and death, and 4 in accounts of his resurrection! Only in Mt.20:19 and 26:2 is Jesus himself quoted, and in both instances, he is giving a simple forewarning to the disciples of what is about to happen. In no case does Jesus himself make any statement about either the causes or the implications of that event.
Peter’s two sermons, recorded in Ac.2:36 and 4:10 – the only uses of stauroo in that earliest history of the church – vividly point out to the listeners that although they thought they had disposed of Jesus, HE IS ALIVE!!!, and thereby demonstrated to be “both Lord and Christ [the Anointed One]” (chapter 2), and (chapter 4) active among his people!

There is a bit more reference to the cross in the Epistles, but much less than I expected. Paul speaks of the cross eleven times, and uses the verb form eight times. Some of the “accomplishments” attributed to the cross, that are seldom mentioned in modern teaching, include Eph.2:16 – the reconciling of Jew and Gentile into one Body, Col.1:20 – making peace by reconciling everything to himself (Jesus), Gal.5:24 – those who belong to Jesus have (active voice) “crucified the human nature with its cravings and passions”, and its parallel in Rom.6:6 – “our old person was (passive voice) crucified together with him … so that we may be no longer enslaved to failure.” In Gal.6:14, Paul affirms “In no way will I brag, except about the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world is crucified, as far as I am concerned, and I with respect to the world.”

Paul becomes somewhat more theoretical about the subject in both of his letters to Corinth. Scolding the group for their divisions, he asks (1:13) “Paul wasn’t crucified for you, was he?”, making the point, in the first two chapters, that no one but Jesus deserves their loyalty. There, as in Gal.5:11 and Phil.2:8, where this is only one element of Paul’s description of Jesus’ obedience, his intention seems to be to highlight the degradation assumed by society at large to be associated with crucifixion. He notes that the willing acceptance of this dishonor by Jesus should be a strong motivation for eschewing the elevation of any individuals. Only once does Paul make any connection with “charges against us” (Col.2:14) – something Jesus himself never mentioned at all – yet, tragically, that has become, in the minds of many, the sum total – the only focus – of their “gospel message”! (Please refer to W.S.#7, for a study of “forgiveness”, and note that Jesus’ authority to forgive was derived from WHO HE WAS/IS – “God-with-us”– and is not connected in any of the Gospel accounts to his death.)

In this regard, it is useful also to include some of Paul’s references to Jesus’ death, where the cross is not specifically mentioned, in trying to reconstruct the message. Please refer to the end of chapter 12 of Citizens of the Kingdom for a summary of these. One is made to wonder, why we hear so little about most of these.
And don’t forget that even Paul, whom folks that delight in designing “doctrines” love to quote (often not very carefully), qualifies his statement about Jesus’ death (I Cor.15:3) with the assertion (v.14), “If Christ hasn’t been raised, our preaching is useless!”

It will be necessary to save a more detailed examination of the primacy of the resurrection for the next posting. I will only note here that in contrast to the 28 references to the cross, there are 40 to anastasis, the primary word used for the resurrection. The verb form, anistemi, occurs 112 times (as opposed to 46 uses of “crucify”), and that is without taking into account the other words used in the glorious message that JESUS IS ALIVE – and in him, we too shall live!
Stay tuned.

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