On a Tree
Dr. Dan Hayden
ever wondered why Jesus had to die on a cross? An altar on some
mountain top might have been more fitting from an Old Testament
point of view. In fact, that is what God arranged for Abraham in
the sacrifice of his only begotten son, Isaac (Genesis 22). Or why
didn't the religious leaders just stone Jesus to death as they did
with Stephen sometime later (Acts 7)? After all, that was the means
of capital punishment in Israel, and Pilate seemed willing to give
them permission for that (John 18:31-32). But the rulers of the
Jews wanted more than death. What was it that caused them to press
Pilate for the crucifixion of Jesus? It seems that the cross was
destined to be God's altar of sacrifice, not a pile of rocks.
have always had a problem with that. How could Jesus be the Messiah
and die as a criminal on a Roman cross? For them, that is too much
to accept. Almost any other type of death would have had more dignity
the fact that crucifixion is, without question, the most humiliating
and degrading form of public death ever devised. First of all, it
was a very slow agonizing death. Often it would last for days as
the victim died more from suffocation than from bleeding. Furthermore,
hanging naked in public along some well-traveled road added immensely
to the sense of shame. Fully exposed like a carcass hanging on a
rack, the victim experienced long hours of pain and an interminable
time of humiliation. Crucifixion was not only ugly, it was inhuman.
we understand that God had planned this event from eternity past
(Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8), we are also confronted
with the realization that God was in absolute control of everything
that was happening. In God's plan, the timing was perfect (Galatians
4:4). The Romans were ruling in the Middle East and their method
of criminal prosecution was crucifixion. It is what He wanted. He
had chosen the Roman world as the stage of redemption and, therefore,
the cross was no accident. It was perfect for what God had in mind.
was a well-known and commonly practiced means of executing criminals
in the ancient world. Herodotus, the Greek historian tells us that
the Persians used crucifixion as a form of extreme punishment. Other
sources reveal the practice among the Assyrians, the Scythians,
and the Thracians as well as among more distant European groups
such as the Celts, the Germans, and the Britons. On one occasion,
Alexander the Great had 2000 survivors of the siege of Tyre crucified
along the shores of the Mediterranean.
In the Roman
mind, crucifixion was reserved for rebellious slaves, mutinous troops,
vile criminals, and insurrectionists against the state. Roman citizens,
especially the upper class, were normally exempt from such an ignominious
death no matter what their crime. The reason for this was that crucifixion
was viewed not just as a means of death, but also as a means of
portraying shame. Therefore only the most despicable were crucified.
To be hung on a cross meant more than that a crime worthy of death
had been committed. It meant that the accused was considered to
be a lowly, vile, reprehensible person, in addition to being a criminal.
He was not only bad — he was base.
It was for
this reason that crucifixion was done in very busy, public settings.
Part of the intent, obviously, was to deter others from committing
such crimes. Gerald O'Collins, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary,
quotes the Roman Quintilian (ca. 35-95 AD) as saying, "Whenever
we crucify the guilty, the most crowded roads are chosen, where
the most people can see and be moved by this fear" (Vol. 1,
p. 1208). But the primary motive was to inflict the greatest amount
of physical torment and public shame on persons of such reprehensible
and detestable character. The Romans had more than retribution in
mind. They were also expressing disgust and utter contempt.
the Jews never practiced crucifixion as a means of capital punishment
(except during a brief interval during the Hellenistic-Hasmonean
Period), they did have a similar custom for expressing a high degree
of contempt for undesirable persons. After a criminal had been put
to death by some other means (i.e., the sword, stoning, etc.), the
dead body would be strung up on a tree as a symbol of shame and
dishonor. This public exposure gave the people an opportunity to
express their venomous hatred for such a despicable criminal as
they hurled their insults and mockery at the strung-up victim.
commenting on the law regarding Israel's practice of hanging a condemned
person on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) makes the following observation:
the body exhibited the person to public humiliation. The criminal
was under the curse of God… the judgment that takes a person's
life out of the covenant community as a perpetrator of the worst
kind of sin and displays that judgment by the humiliation of hanging
his body in public shows that that person is under God's curse.
(The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Vol. 3, pp. 134-135)
are told in the American far west, of hunting parties combing the
hills for a killer cat that had been raiding the herds and flocks
— and perhaps even maiming members of the community who lived
in outlying areas. As the mountain lion was found and killed, the
irate citizens of the community would often hang the carcass on
a pole in the center of town for a time, in order to give the people
an opportunity to vent their anger on the devil cat. Anyone who
wished could spit on it, strike it with a stick, punch it with their
fists and in a variety of other ways express their anger at the
despicable creature that had caused them loss and sorrow.
the same idea behind the Jewish practice of hanging a criminal's
body on a tree. It was for this reason that Joshua hung the body
of the king of Ai on a tree (Joshua 8:29) and the bodies of the
five kings of the southern confederacy on five trees (Joshua 10:26-27).
He was interested in more than their execution. Exposing them to
public shame and ridicule was the primary motive for this practice.
Paul quoted from this Jewish law (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) as he described
for us the reason for Christ's death on the cross, when he said,
"Christ redeemed us from the curse
of the law" (Galatians 3:13) [emphasis, mine]. You see, Christ
not only died for our sins in a judicial sense, paying the required
penalty for our crimes of disobedience; He also bore our "curse,"
the utter shame associated with our blatant disobedience against
the God of the universe.
leaders pressed Pilate for the sentence of crucifixion, they were
expressing their contempt for anyone guilty of the sin of blasphemy
— the sin of which they were accusing Jesus. They were not
only clamoring for Jesus' death. Knowing that the Roman idea of
crucifixion was paramount to their practice of hanging on a tree,
they would be satisfied with nothing less than having Jesus crucified.
They wanted Him put to shame. They wanted to demonstrate that He
was cursed of God.
did not understand, however, was that Jesus was not dying for His
own sin, but for their sins. As Paul, the converted Jewish Pharisee
would one day seek to explain to them, Christ was bearing the very
shame associated with their sin of willful disobedience against
is what we must also understand. Our sins of willful disobedience
against a holy God are equally reprehensible. We are not only deserving
of death, we are deserving of shame. You see, Pilate did not choose
the cross for Jesus. Neither did the Jewish leaders of the Sanhedrin.
God chose the cross, for it was the perfect means of inflicting
death through the shedding of blood, while also expressing shame
through public humiliation. No means of execution was ever more
fitting to demonstrate the full punishment for sin. The Bible says
that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), but it also shows
us that the horror of sin is in its ultimate shame — as it
is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree" (Galatians
writer to the Hebrews appealed to the death of Christ as an example
for his readers to persevere in the midst of their trials, he mentioned
three things associated with the death experience of our Lord. He
unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the
joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame,
and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews
Jesus not only "endured the cross" as He suffered the
physical torments of crucifixion; He also despised "the shame"
as He hung in the place of ridicule. There were two things happening
on that fateful day. Jesus was dying for our sins, but He was also
bearing our infamous shame as He hung on a tree. Yet in doing that,
He won an incredible victory over sin and death so that a third
thing is said of him — He is "set down at the right hand
of the throne of God." That is the place of honor now occupied
by the victorious Son of God. The death and shame were incredibly
difficult, but the accomplishing of our redemption was the basis
of His joy.
as you worship the Lord Jesus during the Easter season, reflect
on the full meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on your behalf.
Thank Him that He has redeemed you "from the curse of the law"
(Galatians 3:13). Express your grateful praise to Christ for not
only paying the penalty for your sin, but for also bearing your