As odd as it sounds, to better understand the cross, we need to better understand the Romans.
The cross was a Roman execution device. It was brutal, inhumane, and used as a way to keep people in line. The Romans would never intimidate from far away. They got in your face and shoved fear down your throat.
When Jesus was crucified, the Roman presence in Jerusalem had been ramped up. The Jewish Passover was being celebrated, and every devout Jew from all over the known world was coming to the Temple to worship.
They weren’t worshipping Caesar, which proved to be problematic to Rome. They worshipped their own God and were celebrating freedom from oppression that occurred with the Exodus.
Rome was currently oppressing the Jews.
The Romans allowed the Jews during Jesus day to worship as they pleased, but they were wary of anyone who might get the idea to start a rebellion and try to overthrow Rome. No one wanted Jewish nationalism to get out of hand.
To combat this spirit, the Romans showed their power in the most torturous way they knew how – crucifixion.
Crucifixion wasn’t for petty criminals.
It was reserved for those who attempted to go up against Rome.
The Romans set up crosses on main roads right outside the city gates. As people went in or out, they couldn’t help but see the power of Rome, and its treatment for anyone who would dare to go against it.
People literally had to walk right beside the crosses. They could see the pain. They could hear the gasps for air. They could smell the stench of death.
And those hung had their feet only inches from the ground. This was a part of the torture. As the pain increased, so did the mental torment. They would begin to feel if they could just take one step down they could breathe, or not have their weight hanging by their hands.
Our English Bible tells us Jesus hung with two other people. The NIV calls them rebels. The New Living Translation calls them revolutionaries. Holman Christian Standard calls them criminals, and the New American Standard and King James calls them thieves.
The Greek word used is lēstēs, or the plural lēstai. This is important to note, because in the first century it was a technical term for insurgents.
These were not ordinary criminals.
These were criminals who had dared to go up against Rome.
Think back to the Triumphal Entry. If you haven’t read my blog on it, please do so here. Jesus the “Messiah” had come into the city with people yelling “deliverance!” and praising the King of Israel.
This put him on the Roman Radar as a person of interest. Too many Jews were excited to see him.
On Jesus’ cross, he was charged with the crime of being “King of the Jews”. When the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus it wasn’t because it is what the Jewish leaders wanted. At that point, they were inconsequential.
The soldiers mocked Jesus because they thought he was a rebel trying to overthrow Rome.
Jesus died in place of a rebel. He probably took Barabbas’ cross.
But we rebel too.
Not against Rome, or even a government.
We rebel against God when we sin.
When we lie.
When we cheat.
Or go against God’s ways.
We are rebels.
And Jesus died… for us.