Not Just Any Old Crucifixion

April 14, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


"Calvary" by Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1500

“Calvary” by Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1500

In the ancient world, crucifixions were a dime a dozen.  Hardly a day passed without one.  Consider these statistics:

  • 519 BC: Darius I, king of Persia, crucifies 3,000 of the leading citizens of Babylon.
  • 332 BC: Alexander the Great crucifies 2,000 people after invading the city of Tyre.
  • 100 BC: Alexander Jannaeus, king of Judea, crucifies 800 Pharisees.
  • 71 BC:  A great uprising of slaves against the Roman Empire, led by the great gladiator Spartacus, leads to the crucifixion of 6,000 of his followers along a stretch of highway from Capua to Rome, totaling 120 miles.
  • 4 BC: Varus, governor of Syria, crucifies 2,000 Jewish rebels who were leading a Messianic revolt.
  • AD 70:  The Roman general Titus sweeps into the city of Jerusalem, sacks it, and begins crucifying 500 people a day he runs out of wood to make crosses.

Crucifixions happened all the time.  In fact, according to one estimate, as many as 30,000 people were crucified just in Israel by Jesus’ day.[1]

This Friday is Good Friday – a day when we commemorate a crucifixion.  But with crucifixions being so commonplace in the ancient world, it’s worth it to ask:  Why do we commemorate one particular crucifixion?  Why don’t we commemorate the many crucifixions of the citizens of Babylon, or of Spartacus’ followers, or of the Jews under Titus’ reign of terror?  Why do we commemorate only one crucifixion – Jesus’ crucifixion?

The Mishnah, an ancient compendium of Jewish rabbinical teaching, explains that if a criminal was condemned to execution, which would have included crucifixion, he was to say, “Let my death be atonement for all of my transgressions.”[2]  The idea was that if a person’s crimes were so heinous that he was deserving of death, only death could save him from those crimes.  Crucifixion, then, was connected not only to punitive punishment, but also to personal atonement.

Jesus’ crucifixion, however, was different.  Rather than making recompense for His own sins by His death, Jesus asks for forgiveness for others’ sins:  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  And rather than seeking atonement for Himself by His execution, the apostle John says Jesus makes atonement for the world:  “[Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

This is why we commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion.  For we remember not only that Jesus was crucified, but why Jesus was crucified.  He was crucified not for His own sins, but for ours.  Jesus’ crucifixion did what no other crucifixion could do.  It saved us.  And that’s worth remembering…and celebrating.  And that’s why this Friday is not just any Friday, but a Good Friday.

______________________________

[1] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary:  Matthew 24-28 (Chicago:  The Moody Bible Institute, 1989), Matthew 27:27-37.

[2] m. Sanhedrin 6.2.

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