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The Death of the Cross Duncan Heaster  
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11. Our Christian Extremism

Repeatedly, the Lord bids us take up our cross and follow Him. The life of self-crucifixion, daily carrying a stake of wood to the place where we will be nailed to it and left to die a tortuous death…day by day living in the intensity of a criminal’s ‘last walk’ to his death; how radical and how demanding this really is can easily be lost upon us. And it can be overlooked how totally unacceptable was the idea of dying on a cross in the context of the first century. In Roman thought, the cross was something shocking; the very word ‘cross’ was repugnant to them. It was something only for slaves. Consider the following writings from the period (1).

- Cicero wrote: “The very word ‘cross’ 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…the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man…your honours [i.e. Roman citizenship] protect a man from…the terror of the cross".

- Seneca the Elder in the Controversiae records where a master’s daughter marries a slave, and she is described as having become related to cruciarii, ‘the crucified’. Thus ‘the crucified’ was used by metonymy for slaves. The father of the girl is taunted: “If you want to find your son-in-law’s relatives, go to the cross". It is hard for us to appreciate how slaves were seen as less than human in that society. There was a stigma and revulsion attached to the cross.

- Juvenal in his 6th Satire records how a wife ordered her husband: “Crucify this slave". “But what crime worthy of death has he committed?" asks the husband, “no delay can be too long when a man’s life is at stake". She replies: “What a fool you are! Do you call a slave a man?".

The sense of shame attached to the cross was also there in Jewish perception of it. Whoever was hung on a tree was seen as having been cursed by God (Dt. 21:23). Justin Martyr, in Dialogue with Trypho, records Trypho (who was a Jew) objecting to Christianity: “We are aware that the Christ must suffer…but that he had to be crucified, that he had to die a death of such shame and dishonour- a death cursed by the Law- prove this to us, for we are totally unable to receive it" (2). Justin Martyr in his Apology further records: “They say that our madness consists in the fact that we place a crucified man in second place after the eternal God". The Romans also mocked the idea of following a crucified man. The caricature [see box] shows a crucified person with an ass’s head. The ass was a symbol of servitude [note how the Lord rode into Jerusalem on an ass]. The caption sarcastically says: “Alexamenos worships God".

Yet with this background, “the preaching of the cross" won many converts in the first century. “The Jews require a sign and the Greeks [Gentiles, e.g. Romans] seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness" (1 Cor. 1:22,23). Paul exalts that Christ “became obedient to death- even death on a cross!" (Phil. 2:8 NIV). Those brethren and sisters must have endured countless taunts, and many times must have reflected about changing their message. But the historical reality of the crucifixion, the eternal and weighty importance of the doctrine of the atonement, as we might express it today…this was of itself an imperative to preach it. We cannot change our message because it is apparently unattractive. The NT suggests that the cross was not just something shocking and terrible, but a victory, a triumph over sin and death which should be gloried in and thereby preached to the world in joy and hope (Gal. 6:14). We may look at the world around us and decide that really, there is no way at all our message will convert anyone. We are preaching something so radically different from their world-view. But the preaching of a crucified King and Saviour in the first century was just as radical- and that world was turned upside down by that message! People are potentially willing to respond, even though in the stream of faces waiting for transport or passing along a busy street, we might not think so. It will be our simple and unashamed witness which will be used by the Father to convert them; we needn’t worry about making our message acceptable to them. There was nothing acceptable in the message of the cross in the first century- it was bizarre, repulsive and obnoxious. But the fact men and women gave their lives to take it throughout the known world shows the power of conviction which it has. And that same power is in the Gospel which we possess. If we believe it rather than merely know it, we will do the same with it.

Public Witness

There was something essentially public about crucifixion. Quintillian wrote: “Whenever we crucify the guilty, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this fear…[crucifixion] relates not to much to retribution as to exemplary effect" [quoted in Hengel].

Minucius records that opposition to the Christian faith was because the believers so closely identified themselves with the crucified Christ that His death and shame were seen as theirs: “they are said to be a man who was punished with death as a criminal and the fatal wood of his cross, thus providing suitable liturgy for the depraved friends" (3). Thus we see how deep was their appreciation of the doctrine of representation: they saw the Lord in His time of dying as representative of themselves. Time and again the words and actions of Paul show that both consciously and unconsciously he was aware that he was experiencing in himself the experiences of his Lord. In his preaching he made himself a slave of all, weak that he might gain the weak (1 Cor. 9:19,22). This is language he elsewhere understands as appropriate to the Lord in His death (2 Cor. 13:4; Phil. 2:7 cp. Mk. 9:35). In our preaching, like Paul, our lives should placard the crucified Christ before the eyes of men (Gal. 3:1). Yet remember how obnoxious it was for a Roman citizen like Paul to have anything to do with a cross, to even think about it or speak the word. And yet he placarded Christ crucified to men, radically going against all he humanly was and was meant to be. Our preaching of Christ likewise involves us in presenting something radical to our surrounding world. A village headman converted in an African context may have to give up his position, preaching the virtue of humility; high caste Indian brethren may have to publicly associate with their lower caste brethren, evidently esteeming them as better than themselves to be; Europeans have to reject promotion to jobs which cannot be done with the spirit of Christ…in all these things, we are fools for Christ’s sake; for the sake of His cross. And yet we are witnesses for Him through all this, in a more compelling way than we may realise at the time. The very nature of crucifixion meant something public, for all to see. There is no way we can hide our conversion from others. Those who do this usually end up losing what faith they had. The Lord taught this: He said that a lamp is not lit to be placed under a bucket but to give light to others. If we hide our light under the bucket of embarrassment and worldly behaviour, it will go out. I am not saying we will be damned if we don’t preach. But the Lord is saying that if the light of personal faith is hidden from others, it will go out. If we have the Truth- use it or lose it. The crucifixion life is one that by its nature is evident to all. For this reason I am hesitant about applicants for baptism not wanting to tell their families for fear of persecution. I appreciate that there are specific cases where this seems in the short term the most reasonable thing. But ultimately, a true life of faith cannot be hid.

What I am saying is that there was and is something utterly radical and extreme about the essential message of Christ crucified. He died for us, that we should henceforth not live unto ourselves but unto Him. Because we identify with His death and resurrection, the world is crucified unto us. The cross is to be seen as the pattern of our self-denial. We will not become mere religious fanatics; but His death and dying, and His life and living, will mean that we are deeply and fundamentally affected. We will reject the passing pleasures of the flesh which this world offers, its drunkenness, drugs and adultery; in all our ways we will show whom we know and whom we have believed. Somehow our body language, our dress, our deportment, our ways “which be in Christ" will preach to the world the radical nature of our experience of Christ. We will be fools for Christ’s sake in the eyes of the world; for belief in the demands of the cross is still as essentially foolish and bizarre as it was in the first century. Our understanding of the atonement- of “the cross"- makes us separate from the various sects of Christendom. Dare I say it, but in this sense we “have the Truth" in the sense that we have the real Christ. There is therefore (or should be) an overpowering urgency about our witness.

Demanding Language

Despite “the offence of the cross", Paul preached it. “I determined not to know [an idiom for ‘teach the knowledge of] any thing among you save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul didn’t accommodate his message to the ears of his hearers. There are times when God’s revelation is accommodated to us, but not when it comes to the basic message of Christ and the demands which His cross makes upon us. Likewise the Bible contains teaching about the place of women which was violently in collision with the accepted place of women at the time. It is not that the Bible [or its believers] seek to be controversial. But there is a radical and uncompromisable message which is expressed.

The Lord used language which likewise challenged people. He could be seen as a demanding Lord. The Lord Jesus said many " hard sayings" which dissuaded people from seriously following Him. He kept speaking about a condemned criminal's last walk to his cross, and telling people they had to do this. He told them, amidst wondrous stories of flowers and birds, to rip out their eyes, cut off their limbs- and if they didn't, He didn't think they were serious and would put a stone round their neck and hurl them into the sea (Mk. 9:42-48). He healed a leper, and then spoke sternly to Him (Mk. 1:43 AV mg.). All three synoptics record how He summarily ordered His weary disciples to feed a crowd numbering thousands in a desert, when they had no food (Mt. 14:16; Mk. 6:37; Lk. 9:13). He criticises the man who earnestly wished to follow Him, but first had to attend his father's funeral. " Let the dead bury their dead" (Mt. 8:22) was a shocking, even coarse figure to use- 'let the dead bodies drag one more dead body into their grave'. And then He went on to speak and show His matchless, endless love. Mark 5 records three prayers to Jesus: " the devils besought him" , and " Jesus gave them leave" (vv. 12,13); the Gadarenes " began to pray him to depart out of their coasts" (v. 17); and He obliged. And yet when the cured, earnestly zealous man " prayed him that he might be with him...Jesus suffered him not" (vv. 18,19). He expressed Himself to the Jews in ways which were almost provocative (consider His Sabbath day miracles, and invitation to drink His blood). He intended to shake them. He seems to have used hyperbole in order to make the point concerning the high standard of commitment He expects. Thus He spoke of cutting off the limbs that offend. He told those who were interested in following Him that He had nowhere to lay His head (Lk. 9:58). That may have been true that night, but the ministering women surely saw to it that this was not the case with Him most nights.

The Harder Side Of God

The harder side of the Father and the Lord Jesus actually serves as an attraction to the serious believer. The lifted up Jesus draws men unto Him. When Ananias and Sapphira were slain by the Lord, fear came upon " as many as heard these things" . Many would have thought His attitude hard; this man and woman had sold their property and given some of it (a fair percentage, probably, to make it look realistic) to the Lord's cause. And then He slew them. But just afterwards, " believers were the more added to the Lord" (Acts 5:12,14). The Lord's harder side didn't turn men away from Him; rather did it bring them to Him. And so the demands and terror of the preaching of the cross did likewise. The balance between His utter grace, the way (e.g.) He marvelled at men's puny faith, and His harder side, is what makes His character so utterly magnetic and charismatic in the ultimate sense. Think of how He beheld the rich man and loved Him, and yet at the same time was purposefully demanding: He told Him to sell all He had and give it to beggars. Not to the work of the ministry, but to beggars, many of whom one would rightly be cynical of helping. It was a large demand, the Lord didn't make it to everyone, and He knew He was touching the man's weakest point. If the Lord had asked that the man's wealth be given to Him, he may have agreed. But to beggars.... And yet the Lord made this heavy demand with a deep love for the man.

Many readers will be perplexed by questions such as: ‘Why does God call this man but not that woman, who seems such a nice person? Why does God allow children and animals to die, in many cases without hope, according to the Bible? Why are many good living people not called to know the Truth? Why do some people suffer so terribly? Why does God allow some to be born mentally ill, and others likewise to suffer through no fault of their own?’. To me, these must remain questions to struggle with. I see no trite answer within the limits of Biblical exposition (4). But for me, this apparently harder side of God in a way attracts me to Him. I see in these imponderables that surely there is a God above, and we are mere men, with all the arrogance of our misunderstanding. This harder side of God converts men, and will convert them at the final judgment. God judged nations [often terribly] in order that men might know Him as Yahweh (e.g. Ez. 25:11; 28:22; 30:19). Yahweh is exalted in His judging of men (Is. 5:16). His judgments make His Name / character manifest. “Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy Name?...all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest" (Rev. 15:4). A number of OT passages (e.g. Is. 25:3) hint that a remnant of Israel’s Arab enemies will actually repent and accept Yahweh’s Truth- after their experience of His judgments. God is to be feared and worshipped because of the hour of His judgment (Rev. 14:7); “when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness" (Is. 26:9).

Higher Standards

And so the stark and chilling message of the cross somehow attracts men, as it did in the first century- despite being such an obnoxious Gospel. There is something in human nature which responds to extremism; we want a challenge, we want orders to live by, we want to see a hard line in some ways. And we must articulate these tendencies in us to response to the cross. The height of the demand is in itself proof that this religion we have found is truly and ultimately of God: that we are to be willing to give up our lives, our relationships, to ditch that worldly girlfriend of boyfriend, to appear prudish and unsociable in our rejection of the adultery and drug taking of this world, to be honest in our business dealings, to even lose money because of this…for the sake of living the life of the crucified Saviour with whom we have identified, and whose eternal life we now seek to live. Martial described a crucifixion victim [in Liber Spectaculorum]: “In all his body was nowhere a body’s shape". We are to be “conformed to the image of [God’s] son" (Rom. 8:29)- to share His morphe, which was so marred beyond recognition that men turned away in disgust (Is. 52:14 cp. Phil. 2:7). The mind that was in Him then must be in us now (Phil. 2:5).

It seems to me that the height of the standard, the extent of the demand, the power of the imperative, is not felt by us as a community as it should be. Those who first heard the Lord’s words had seen crucifixion. “When a man from their village took up a cross and went off down the track with a little knot of Roman soldiers, they knew he was on a one-way journey. He would not be back" (5). The call to carry the cross means far more than to patiently bear the hardships of daily life; the cross was an instrument of death, not a means for carrying burdens. Let us get it straight. It was and is a call for a total abandonment of selfishness; it is an image that speaks of the utmost in self-denial. It’s a one-way journey. The Lord and Paul are asking a very high level of commitment from us. It's so high that it seems strange to us. The reason, I suggest, is that 21st Century Christianity and first century Christianity are very different- in terms of commitment. Consider the sort of thing that was accepted as common-place in the early church, and yet which today would be frowned upon as spiritual fanaticism:

- There is evidence that " the single life was highly honoured and respected in the early church, sometimes even going beyond the teaching of Paul" . And 1 Cor. 7 seems to invite single people to dedicate themselves to the Lord’s service rather than family life. Yet for us, marriage is given more respect than singleness. Any serious advocation of ‘trying the single life’ would be seen as extremist.

- Converts joyfully selling all their lands and property, pooling the money, and dividing it among the poorer members. Yet how many owners of property of whatever kind have seriously even thought of giving it away for the benefit of their brethren? We can’t just leave welfare to ‘the mission’ or the ‘richer brethren’.

- Husbands and wives regularly abstaining from sex so they could the more intensely pray and fast for a period of several days. Surveys of Christian prayer habits reveal that on average we spend around 10 minutes / day praying. And scarcely any fast.

- Elders who spent so much time in prayer that they had to ask others to do some practical work for them so they could continue to give the same amount of time to prayer (Acts 6:2-4).

- Young brethren, " the messengers of the churches" , who spent their lives full time running errands in dangerous situations throughout the known world.

- Over zealous brethren (in Thessalonica) who packed up their jobs because they were so sure the second coming was imminent.

- The expectation that the Gospel of Mark (at least) was to be memorised by all converts. Most Christians can scarcely quote more than 50 Bible verses.

- The assumption that all believers would make converts (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

- Widows were expected to remain single; if they remarried, this was acceptable (1 Cor. 7:39,40), but Paul describes it as 'waxing wanton against Christ' (1 Tim. 5:11) because it was a stepping down from the higher standard, which he defines as remaining single (1 Cor. 7:40). This seems a harsh attitude to us. But this is what the Spirit taught.

- Believers were regularly persecuted, tortured, imprisoned and forced to migrate long distances unless they made what some today would consider only a tokenistic denial of their faith.

I am not advocating any of these things specifically; rather together do they give a picture of a community who knew, in their context, the meaning of the cross.

We have somehow hived off the first century ecclesia in our mind, as if to say to ourselves: 'Well, that was them, but we're in a totally different spiritual environment'. The same mind-set occurs when we consider the zeal of earlier believers in more recent history. We may not need to suffer or physically extend ourselves in these ways; but the imperative of the cross is to live the life of Christ until it hurts. To keep our mouth shut under provocation, to forgive our apparently slanderous brethren, from the heart…these sort of things are also the living and dying of the cross. There is no doubt that the more we read the New Testament, the more we will see that the level of commitment required is high indeed. The fact many failed to rise up to it doesn't affect this. But as the disciples kept changing the subject whenever the Lord started speaking about the cross, and as men hid their faces from the physical reality of Christ crucified, we can likewise turn away from the demands of His cross. Notice how when the Lord spoke of going up to Jerusalem and being crucified there, Peter tried to stop Him. The Lord responded: “Get thee [Peter] behind me…if any man will come after me, let him…take up his cross and follow me". The words in italics are all the same in the original. Jesus is saying: ‘Come on Peter, take up your cross and walk behind me; don’t stop me walking to my crucifixion, just because you know that if I die in that way, so you must too’. We can turn away from the cross [and we all have a problem concentrating on it at the memorial meeting]…simply because we realise what it therefore and thereby implies for us, who are “in Christ", represented in Him in His time of awful dying. When Peter was told in Jn. 21 that he would die with hands spread out [a reference to crucifixion], he was then bidden ‘follow after’ the Lord there and then. Very often ‘following’ Jesus is in the context of carrying the cross. And so Peter did follow; Jesus went in front, and Peter walked behind Him. But then he turned away from following Him because he had noticed John following. “Lord, and what shall this man do?" was met with a call back to the essential: “What is that to thee? Follow thou me". He got so easily distracted from the call of the cross, in this case by the ‘following’of his brother. And we know this problem all too well. I am not preaching fanaticism or extremism in a cult-like sense. I am drawing attention to the essentially radical demands of the crucifixion life we vowed to live through our baptism into that death, those vows which we confirm by taking the cup at the memorial meeting [note how ‘baptism’ and ‘cup’ are both symbols of the Lord’s passion in Mk. 10:39]...and asking us to face up to them, rather than turn away from them and quickly get back on with our external Christianity, or with the futile analysis of others as Peter did with John. And if we can live that crucifixion life, albeit partially, we will even now know His resurrection life, with which we are also identified. And this is life of matchless joy and peace through believing.


(1) These quotes are from Martin Hengel, Crucifixion In The Ancient World.

(2) Quoted in Maurice Goguel, Jesus The Nazarene.

(3) Quoted in Bill Farrar, The Preaching Of A Crucified Saviour. I am indebted to this work in many ways.

(4) The best I can do is a stuttering, poorly written appendix on ‘The Justice Of God’ at the end of Bible Basics.

(5) Leon Morris, The Cross Of Jesus.