The Odious, Revolting Death of the Cross

“And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:8)

“It is very hard for us today to hear the shocking overtones of the words Paul uses, because the cross has become for us such a domesticated symbol. Today many women and some men dangle crosses from their ears. Our bishops hang crosses about their necks. Our buildings have crosses on the spires, or stained wooden crosses are backlit with fluorescent lights. Some of our older church buildings are actually built in cruciform, and no one is shocked.

“Suppose you were to place in a prominent position in your church building a fresco of the massed graves of Auschwitz. Wouldn’t everyone be horrified? But in the first century, the cross had something of that symbolic value. Scholars have gone through every instance of the word ‘cross’ and related expressions that have come down to us from about the time of Jesus and shown how ‘crucifixion’ and ‘cross’ invariably evoke horror. Of the various forms of Roman execution, crucifixion could be used only for slaves, rebels, and anarchists; it could never be used for a Roman citizen, apart from the express sanction of the Emperor. Crucifixion was considered too cruel – so shameful that the word itself was avoided in polite conversation.

“But here is Paul, boldly insisting that the Lord Christ Whom we serve – precisely because He is that kind of God – made Himself a nobody, became in fact a slave (becoming a human being in the process), and then humbled himself yet further by obeying His Heavenly Father and dying – dying the odious, revolting death of the cross, reserved for public enemies and the dregs of the criminal justice system. The language is meant to shock. Jesus died on a cross! I believe it was W.H. Auden who penned the lines,

Only the unscarred, overfed,
Enjoy the verbal event of Calvary.

– D.A. Carson, An Exposition of Philippians (Ch. 2, p. 46)

6 thoughts on “The Odious, Revolting Death of the Cross”

  1. This is one of the many instances in which looking into the etymology and historical use of a word can multiply the meaning of a verse…

  2. Cicero did not believe that crucifixion should even be mentioned in polite society. There was a graffito found that depicted a man bowing to a crucified figure with the head of a donkey, and it was a mockery of Christianity, that is how detestable the idea was. How lightly we have taken such a matter, the history of crucifixion isn’t the glorified thing today, it was terrible.

    Great excerpt, thanks for sharing, sounds like a great book.

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