The Stigma of The Cross

The Apostle Paul declared:

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness;…But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18,23).

This was Paul’s way of stating that the crucifixion of Jesus was a stigma to the world. The message that declared that people should believe in a crucified Savior was an offensive scandal to the Jews and the height of intellectual madness to the Gentiles.

Why was the crucifixion of Jesus such a stigma? It was so because of three things that the ancient world believed about crucifixion.

First, crucifixion was the most horrible, degrading punishment possible. Not only did it cause the most terrifying and lengthy agony, but also it was designed to humiliate and shame the victim in the greatest way possible.  As a result, crucifixion was designated the supreme Roman penalty, even above burning at the stake and beheading.

Cicero, the famous Roman orator, called crucifixion the “most cruel and disgusting penalty” and said, Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.

Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century A.D., called crucifixion “the most wretched of deaths”.

Second, because crucifixion was so horrible, only three groups of people deserved to die by that means: traitors, the most violent criminals and slaves. So many slaves were crucified in the Roman Empire that crucifixion became known as the “slaves’ punishment”. Cicero declared it to be the ultimate penalty for slaves. Anyone who was executed through this means was classified with these three groups of people and, therefore, was regarded with utmost contempt.

Third, it would be impossible for a Son of God to be crucified. Jews and pagan Gentiles stumbled over the fact that Christians worshipped as the Son of God a Person who had died the death of a slave or violent criminal. To them the idea that a crucified man could be the Son of God was an irreconcilable contradiction.

On the basis of Deuteronomy 21:23, which declared that “. . . he who is hanged is accursed by God . . .,” the Jews believed that to be crucified was a sign that one had been cursed by God. To their way of thinking no Son of God would ever be cursed by God.

The pagan Gentiles were convinced that the gods of Greece and Rome would have absolutely nothing to do with crucifixion. Thus, the Christian belief that the Son of God had been crucified was called “a perverse and extravagant superstition” by Pliny the Younger, a Roman official.

Tacitus and Suetonius,two Roman writers, declared it a “pernicious superstition”.

A graphic illustration of the pagan attitude toward the Christian belief was found in second century graffiti scratched on one of the Roman Palatine buildings. Jesus was portrayed with an ass’ head and hanging on a cross. Another man with the name Alexamenos was shown standing nearby in adoration of Jesus. The words scratched in the plaster underneath the picture said, “Alexamenos adores his God.”

Significant Statements In Light of the Stigma

In light of the ancient world’s view that crucifixion was the “slaves’ punishment”, Paul’s statements concerning Jesus in Philippians 2:6-8 are most significant. Paul declared that, although Jesus existed “in the form of God” and was “equal with God”, He “made himself of no reputation” before the world, for He “took upon him the form of a servant”. “He humbled himself” (He humiliated Himself before the world by exposing Himself to the most shameful death), even to the “death of the cross” (even the slaves’ death).

The writer of Hebrews 12:2-3 wrote that Jesus …for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising [disregarding, caring nothing for, being unafraid of] the shame , . , For consider him that endured such contradiction [hostility, rebellion] of sinners against himself . . . .

These passages indicate that Jesus voluntarily gave Himself to die the slaves’ death, knowing fully beforehand that the humiliation and shame of crucifixion would give Him a bad reputation before the world and would bring the hostility and contempt of the unsaved against Him. He purposely disregarded the shame because of the joy of knowing that His crucifixion would bring the salvation of many Jews and Gentiles.

In view of the ancient world’s conviction that it would be impossible for a Son of God to be crucified, several other statements are very significant. Celsus, one of the most vocal pagan opponents of Christianity in ancient times said of Jesus;

But if he was really so great he ought, in order to display his divinity, to have disappeared suddenly from the cross.

The Jews said the same. Matthew wrote:

And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, And saying, … If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief  priests, mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said. He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him; for he said, I am the Son of God, The thieves also, who were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth (Mt. 27:39-44).

Since the Gentiles and Jews believed that no Son of God could be crucified, they were convinced that, if Jesus were the Son of God, surely He or God would have removed Him from the cross before crucifixion could be completed. To their way of thinking, the very fact that Jesus stayed on the cross was conclusive proof that He was not the Son of God.

Thus, the world passed its verdict: “Jesus of Nazareth was not the Son of God.” But three days later God annulled that verdict by resurrecting Jesus bodily from the dead. The Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God with power, . . . , by the resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4).

Jesus’ resurrection proved the world’s verdict to be wrong. It was God’s way of declaring to the world that, in spite of His crucifixion, Jesus was in truth His Son. After Jesus’ crucifixion God “highly exalted him” (Phil. 2:9).

Lessons to be Learned

In light of Jesus’ crucifixion being a stigma to the ancient world, several lessons are to be learned.

First, God’s thoughts and ways are not man’s thoughts and ways (Isa. 55:8-9). In spite of the fact that the world regarded any crucified person with utter contempt, God gave the world a crucified Savior.

Second, God wants His people to present to Jews and Gentiles, not what they want, but what they despise.

. . . It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness (1 Cor. 1:21-23).

Third, neither Jew nor Gentile can be saved apart from hearing and believing the offensive message concerning the crucifixion of Jesus.

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved, it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18, cf.vv. 23-24) … It is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Rom. 1:16).

Fourth, any message that does not contain both the crucifixion and bodily resurrection of Jesus is not the Gospel.

. . .I declare unto you the gospel … by which also ye are saved, , . . that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1-4).

Since it is by the Gospel that people are saved, and since no one can be saved apart from hearing and believing the message concerning Jesus’ crucifixion, then one must conclude that the crucifixion is an indispensable part of the Gospel. In addition, since Jesus’ resurrection was God’s way of declaring to the world that He was the Son of God in spite of his crucifixion, then the resurrection is also an indispensable part of the Gospel. The world must be informed of the fact that its verdict concerning the crucified Jesus was annulled by God. The message that presents Jesus only as a Friend who can solve personal problems or only as the great Teacher of ethics is not the Gospel and, therefore, cannot save.

Fifth, the Gospel dare not be sugarcoated or watered down, and nothing is to be added to it, in order to make it more palatable to the world or to avoid or alleviate the stigma of the cross. To do so is to render the crucifixion of Jesus void. Paul wrote:

For Christ sent me. .. to preach the gospel; not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect (1 Cor. 1:17). And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, dedaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified, And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power; That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:1-5).

The Judaizers added the requirement of circumcision to the Gospel in order to make the Gospel more acceptable to the Jews, so that the Jews would not persecute them “for the cross of Christ” (Gal. 6:12). Paul refused to add circumcision to the Gospel, for such an addition would abolish “the offense of the cross” (Gal. 5:11).

Sixth, in spite of the stigma associated with Jesus’ crucifixion, the believer should not be “ashamed of the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 1:16). Instead, he should glory in that crucifixion. Paul said:

But God forbid that I should glory, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . (Gal. 6:14).

The believer should have such a positive attitude toward Jesus’ crucifixion and the Gospel because of what they are — the power of God unto salvation.

Seventh, when the believer publicly identifies himself with the crucified and risen Jesus through such a means as water baptism, two things happen to him. First, he thereby separates himself from the world order in the sense that he is publicly rejecting its wrong verdict concerning the crucified Jesus. Second, the world order in turn rejects him. Since it regards the crucified Christ with contempt, it also scorns those who identify themselves with Him. Paul said;

But God forbid that I should glory, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world (Gal. 6:14).

God wants believers to publicly identify themselves with the crucified, risen Jesus through baptism and thereby be marked as a “Christ-one” before the world.

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