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Why Did Jesus Die? The Scandal of the Cross
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lent series title1 CORINTHIANS 1:18-25


In 1857, archaeologists working on the Palatine Hill in the city of Rome unearthed a home that once belonged to the Emperor Caligula and, after his death, became a boarding school for imperial page boys. While they were sifting through the rubble, they came upon an ancient form of graffiti on one of the plaster walls—graffiti depicting a naked human figure with the head of a donkey nailed to a cross, with a man in a posture of worship underneath. The graffiti scrawled underneath says, in Greek, “Alexamenos cebete Theos” or “Alexamenos worships his God.”


The graffiti, which likely dates from around 200AD, is considered to be the earliest example of the Roman mockery of Christians and their worship. The donkey’s head adds to the insult—a symbol of stubborn foolishness. Alexamenos, one of the early Christians, is thus depicted as a fool and representative of those like him who worshipped a crucified man.


Today, we have the cross as a central symbol in our worship space, so it’s hard for us to imagine how offensive that would have been to people of the first century—both Romans and Jews. The Romans had a lot of ways to execute criminals—from decapitation to being eaten by animals in the arena, to burning. But crucifixion was reserved for the worst of the worst. It was called the “servile supplicium,” or “the slave’s death.” It was a practice borrowed from the Carthaginians and adapted by the Romans as a very humiliating and very public method of warning people against crossing the power of Rome. Cicero, the first century BC Roman politician, said of the practice:


Crucifixion should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things, or the endurance of them, but liability to them, the expectation, indeed the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.


The Roman world ran on slave labor and lived in constant fear of slave revolts. Crucifixion was a way of warning slaves and other potential insurrectionists to stay in line. Slaves knew that they were in constant danger of death at the whim of their masters. In the early third century play Miles Gloriosus, the slave Sceledrus says, “I know the cross will be my grave; that is where my ancestors are…” When the slave revolt of Spartacus revolt was put down in 71BC, six thousand of the captured rebel slaves were nailed to crosses along the Appian Way. The Romans knew that the brutality, humiliation, and shock value of crucifixion could be an effective deterrent.


So when the Christian message emerged—that a Jewish peasant in the far eastern region of the empire had been crucified and, unbelievably, been raised from the dead was actually the Son of God and the world’s true king—it’s little wonder that the Roman world scoffed in disbelief. People like Alexamenos would have been seen not only as dangerously deluded, but potentially dangerous themselves. The early Christians understood the dilemma.


Justin Martyr, a Christian leader from the early second century, said, “They say that our madness consists in the fact that we put a crucified man in second place after the unchangeable and eternal God, the creator of the world.”


The Jews of the first century world wouldn’t have agreed with the Romans on much, but they did agree that crucifixion was a sign that a person was ultimately cursed. It was right there even in the law of Moses. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 says:


When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.


For both Romans and Jews, the cross was the most irreligious symbol one could imagine. It was indicative of the godless condition of the one who hung upon it—a subhuman worthy only of contempt. There was no nobility in it; no spiritual overtones or redeeming religious meaning. It was utter foolishness to think there might be any meaning other than the curse of horror, blood, and death on someone who deserved it.


The death of Jesus of Nazareth would not have been that unusual in the ancient world. Both Jews and Romans would have thought he deserved it. The Jewish leaders wanted him dead for claiming to be the Messiah, the “Son of Man” promised in the prophecy of Daniel. They took him to Pilate, the Roman governor, because they couldn’t execute him themselves. Pilate was a pragmatist who realized that the charges against Jesus were silly, but he couldn’t have a riot among these people on his record, so he ordered the crucifixion. Jesus would be crucified between two Jewish rebels (not common thieves but lestai, revolutionaries) just like so many others who had gotten in the way of Roman power. To Pilate, and to most of the people in the crowd, it was just another crucifixion—horrible, but forgettable.


But the early Christians, like Alexamenos, like Justin Martyr, and many others, came to believe that this particular death on a cross had real meaning. In fact, it was not just the death of Jesus that meant something, but it was also the way that he died that was also somehow vitally important.


There have been plenty of martyrs throughout history. We have them in our own culture—this being President’s Day weekend, we think of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. We think also of Martin Luther King. These are men who died for a cause, who were unjustly cut down at a critical moment in history. But in none of their cases do we venerate the way that they died. The pistol that John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate Lincoln is under glass in the basement of Ford’s Theater—it’s not on the walls of the White House, nor do Lincoln aficionados wear it as jewelry.


In the case of Jesus, however, the mode of his death is seemingly as important as the death itself. It would have been far more palatable to their Roman and Jewish neighbors had the early Christians simply talked about the noble death of one falsely accused. But they insisted that the cross itself, the instrument of death, contained the key to the meaning of his death, scandalous though it may have been.


Paul, a Pharisaic Jew who became an apostle of Jesus, acknowledged the problem in writing to the Corinthian church:


The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed,” he wrote, “but it is the power for God for those who are being saved… Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, while a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1:18, 22-25).


The message of the cross was the paradoxical “good news” that Paul and the early Christians proclaimed to the Roman and Jewish world, and it’s mind-boggling to think of the enormity of that task given what we have said about the perception of crucifixion. And yet Paul, Alexamenos, and many others continued to worship and proclaim a crucified Lord whose death had changed the world.


How did they come to believe that his death was good news? What was the message that they proclaimed and how did they attract so many with such a counterintuitive gospel? How did the death of Jesus change everything?


These are important questions that we will be exploring in this series. They’re vitally important questions because we live in a world where the cross is still a scandal—a scandal, that is, if it is proclaimed in its fullness. In many ways, our culture and even the church have become numb to the powerful message of the cross. People who aren’t even Christians are happy to wear it as jewelry or have it tattooed on their bodies. The cross has become a symbol of personal struggle, of admiration for a good cause, a symbol of religious affiliation, or sacrifice on behalf of others. Even in the church, the message of the cross has often been diluted into either a self-help strategy where the death of Jesus is either a moral example for us to follow, or a religious transaction that enables believers to go to receive a reward in heaven when they die.


Most Christians will eagerly say, “Jesus died on the cross for my sins,” but few can articulate how the public execution of a man condemned like a slave and enemy of the state outside of Jerusalem 2,000 years actually deals with their sins. Rather than engage the fullness of the message of the cross, we have often settled for shorthand explanations that give us something pithy to say, but do not tell the whole story, nor do they affect the change and cross-bearing life to which Jesus calls us.


We call these shorthand versions of explaining Jesus’ death “atonement theories.” There are lots of versions of “atonement theory” out there—systematic ways of trying to explain the death of Jesus—and when people grab hold of one atonement theory or another they tend to hold on to it like a dog with a bone, rejecting all the others. We might divide those theories into three categories:



1. Christus Victor – the theory that Jesus’ death represents a victory over the powers of evil, sin, and death.

2. Satisfaction – the theory that Jesus’ death “satisfies” the wrath of God by taking our punishment for sin.

3. Moral influence – the theory that the death of Jesus is an example designed to bring positive moral change to humanity


Each of these theories and their many variants have biblical roots and all contain some truth. But no one theory tells the whole story of the meaning of Jesus’ death. These are not meant to stand alone, nor do they do enough to explain the full message of the cross. They tend to be highly individualistic, focusing on the individual believer as the beneficiary of Jesus’ death on the cross. They also deal primarily with the means by which our sins are forgiven, which is vitally important.


But as we will see, for Paul and the early Christians, what we normally think of as the ultimate meaning of Jesus’ death—the forgiveness of our individual sins—is actually only the penultimatemeaning of the cross. In other words, the forgiveness of our sins in the death of Jesus is a means to a greater end. The purpose of Jesus’ death was to create a transformed people, living out their original purpose in the image of God together in a new covenant relationship with God. This new people will not only believe in the atonement and the one who died for them, they will eat it and drink it, they will be baptized into his death, and live a cruciform life. They will participate in and embrace the death of the crucified Lord more than they will merely believe or accept it.


Think about it. When Jesus gave us something to remember the meaning of his death, he did not give us a theory—he gave us a meal. This meal represents the new covenant, the new community made possible by his broken body and shed blood.


Paul speaks to the Corinthian church, reminding them that they have become a new community because of the cross. “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters,” he says to them beginning in verse 26.


By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what was world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low class and low life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. So no human being can brag in God’s presence. It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us!


Alexamenos was drawn into a community of people of the cross. There he found wholeness and hope, and his witness was strong enough that it caused one of his neighbors to scrawl a mocking indictment of him on a wall. He was not seen as wise or powerful, but a fool. But Paul says that it is the message of the cross, when we embrace it, that makes the foolish wise and the wise foolish!


Lent calls us once again to be people of the cross. We began the journey on Wednesday evening by marking one another with the sign of the cross in ash—a sign of repentance, mortality, and a willingness to follow a crucified Lord. As we move through the season, we will be looking at the way of the cross in a variety of ways that, if we embrace them, might cause people to write on walls about us, too (maybe not plaster walls, but Facebook walls, certainly). To live lives of sacrifice and self-denial, to associate with a community of misfits and fools, to proclaim that God can change even the most broken of human hearts and bring them together, to acknowledge our sin and our need for salvation—all of these things will make us look foolish to a world seeking self-actualization and gratification.


The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.


Are you foolish enough to embrace the power of the cross?


Sources (this is also a great reading list for this series): 

Gorman, Michael. The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement. Cascade Books, 2014.

Hegel, Martin. Crucifixion. Fortress Press, 1977.

Rutledge, Fleming. The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Eerdman’s, 2015.

Wright, N.T. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion. HarperOne, 2016.

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