Most of us feel a great deal of discomfort talking about death, especially our own death. Many will come into the office and share with me what they want to take place for the funeral when they die. That way we can get it typed up and made a part of their membership record. When that time comes, either myself or whoever the minister may be, can honor their wishes. They will start by saying something like, “even though this isn’t going to happen for a long time….”
Sometimes the discomfort is not with us but a family member. I remember a man who was dying and needed to talk about his death. He had a son who wouldn’t allow him to talk about it. I had to arrange a time when the son wouldn’t be at the hospital so I could honestly talk with the father who needed to talk.
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things…and that he must be killed…and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Peter loved Jesus and didn’t want Jesus to die. The rebuke at first seems harsh, especially for someone who cared about Him. Peter’s attempt to dissuade the Lord from going to the cross was similar to the temptation in the wilderness. But for Jesus not to die was for Satan to win! The Greek verb used here refers to the set of the mind, the direction of thought. Peter’s mind was running contrary to the purposes of God.
The cross used as an instrument of death was either a plain vertical stake to which the victim was fastened, with the hands tied or nailed above the head, or such a stake provided with a crossbar, to which the victim was fastened with the arms outstretched. This form of punishment was in use among the Egyptians (Gen 40:19), the Carthaginians, the Persians (Est 7:10), the Assyrians, Scythians, Indians, Germans, and from earliest times among the Greeks and Romans. After the conquest of Tyre, Alexander the Great ordered two thousand Tyrians to be crucified as punishment for the city’s resistance. The Hebrew words apparently alluding to crucifixion are tala and yaqa`, generally rendered in the KJV “to hang” (Num 25:4, NASB, “execute,” NIV, “kill”; Deut 21:22; 2 Sam 18:10). The Jewish account is that the exposure of the body tied to a stake by the hands took place after death. Crucifixion after death was not rare, the victim being first killed in mercy. The Jews probably borrowed this punishment from the Romans.
In Christian times the cross, went from being in itself the most vile and repulsive of objects, to the symbol of all that is holy and precious, in the mind of true believers. In the pre-Constantine period the sign of the cross seems to have been quite generally recognized by primitive Christians. On the tombstones of the early Christians the cross was the emblem of victory and hope. It was only after superstition took the place of true spiritual devotion that the figure of the cross was used or borne about as a sacred charm. In the latter part of the third century, people signed the cross in token of safety and laid stress on figures of it as a preservative against evil.
The place of execution was outside the city (1 Kings 21:13; Acts 7:58; Heb 13:12); arriving there, the condemned was stripped of his clothes, which became the property of the soldiers (Matt 27:35); and the cross having been previously erected, he was drawn up and made fast to it with cords or nails, although sometimes he was first fastened to the cross and then raised. The limbs of the victim were generally three or four feet from the earth. Before the nailing or binding took place a medicated cup was given out of kindness to confuse the senses and deaden the pangs of the sufferer (Prov 31:6), usually of “wine mixed with myrrh,” because myrrh was soporific. If the nailing was the most painful mode in the first instance, the other was more so in the end, for the sufferer was left to die of sheer exhaustion, and when simply bound with thongs, it might take days to accomplish the process. Instances are on record of persons surviving for nine days.
Recently Kentucky ancestors carried a remarkable story written by Edwin Burrows Smith. It concerns a man and wife who, in the first half of the 19th century, bought the freedom of 107 slaves! Paul and Susannah Mitchem were not wealthy, but they did own 450 acres in Virginia. They had lived there for fifty years. They were getting older, they were childless and of modest means. But they had a grand vision. They moved first to North Carolina and then to Kentucky. In 1814, Paul and Susannah sent 49 slaves whom they had purchased to William Vinsett who took them to Indiana and freedom. They then sold their Kentucky land and moved to Indiana where they emancipated another 21. After Paul’s death, his wife freed another 11. Adding to this the number of earlier emancipations it is reasoned that one couple purchased and set free 107 slaves! Isn’t it amazing what two ordinary people with extraordinary convictions can do?
Yet Jesus, a penniless carpenter, freed more slaves than the Mitchems. He freed us all! It cost Him His life! “For you know it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ.”
In the Sixth century, the Emperor Justin II presented to the Vatican a cross. It was made of gold and covered with precious stones. The value of it is beyond calculating. In the center was a splinter of wood. That splinter seems out of place in such a jeweled cross until you know that Justin believed it was a splinter of wood from the cross of Christ. Today one suspects that Justin may have been the victim of a very good salesman. Certainly it would be fascinating if we had a splinter of wood from the cross. But if we did, it would not make Communion more sacred. It would not make sermons at the cross more effective. It would not make our worship more spiritual. It would not make our churches more holy.
For it is not the cross itself that is at the heart of our religion. It is the Christ who died on the cross. And He promised that He would be present every time the cup of Communion is lifted in His honor, every time His sacrifice is spoken in sermon or lesson, every time His followers meet in His name. We do have something from the cross of Christ.