Parents and grandparents love to celebrate accomplishments. Last week, they had the “Character Counts Awards” in our school district. Teachers selected one student from each class and grade and awarded them a certificate for exemplary behavior. Well, one of our kids was selected. We told everybody to jump on Zoom for the big moment. Now all the school award ceremonies are Zoomable. Kids received their awards from their teacher, standing in front of the camera while loved ones watched on the other end. Dads and moms shouted out over the internet universe, “Good job! We love you!”
As we approach Good Friday, we think about what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross. Something extraordinary must have happened. We’ve been singing and celebrating ever since.
On a basic level, Jesus overcame the greatest emblem of shame and defeat in history – the cross. Historians believe crucifixion was invented by the barbarians living on the outskirts of the Roman Empire. It was the cruelest form of execution ever practiced. The victim hung, exposed in the elements in maximum pain for the most extended amount of time before dying, usually two to three days later.
The Romans adopted and perfected it. When they destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD General Titus crucified so many in the city they didn’t know where to put them all. The cross was so degrading, Roman citizen were protected by law from crucifixion. The Roman senator Cicero said, “To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to kill him is almost an act of murder: to crucify him is, what? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed.”
Along with Romans, the Jewish people abhorred the cross. The law of Moses said, “anyone who is hung on a tree is under a cruse.” (Deut. 21:23). It made no difference if it was a cross or a tree. Indeed, the promised Messiah would never die as a curse in such a humiliating way.
But the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were not ashamed of Jesus’ death. In their accounts of Jesus’ life, they devote the most time to Good Friday. In the Gospels everything speeds along, and then seems to stop at the foot of the cross. For example…
John 19:16-18 – So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.
Actually, there was a symbol before the cross for the early Christians. During times of persecution, a simple fish was the secret code to identify other believers. One would draw the swooping upward line in dirt. If the other responded by drawing a swooping downward line connecting at the tail, they both knew they could trust one another. Ichthus is the Greek word for “fish” and they chose it as an acrostic. In Greek the I was Isous, or Jesus. Ch was Christos, or Christ. Th was Theos, or God. U was uios, or Son. And, S was Soter, or Savior. So, ichthus was an acrostic for “Jesus Christ God’s Son the Savior.”
The fish thing worked for a while, but it didn’t embody Jesus’ greatest work. As they grew in number, the Christians finally settled on the cross. What an accomplishment! Jesus made the greatest emblem of suffering, shame, and defeat, our greatest emblem of beauty and victory.
To be continued…