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The Gold Cross

The Cross
An upright wooden stake or post on which Jesus was executed. Before the manner of Jesus' death caused the cross to symbolize the very heart of the Christian faith, the Greek word for cross referred primarily to a pointed stake used in rows to form the walls of a defensive stockade. 

It was common in the biblical period for the bodies of executed persons to be publicly displayed by hanging them from the stakes of the stockade wall. This was done to discourage civil disobedience and to mock defeated military foes (Gen 40:19; 1 Sam 31:8-13). This gruesome practice may explain how the stake eventually came to be used as an instrument of civil and military punishment. Such stakes came to be used later with crossbeams as instruments of humiliation, torture, and execution for persons convicted as enemies of the state (foreign soldiers, rebels and spies, for example) or of civil criminals (such as robbers). 

Usage in the Ancient World
During the Old Testament period, there is no evidence that the Jews fastened people to a stake or a cross as a means of execution. The Law directed death by stoning (Lev 20:2; Deut 22:24). But the Law did permit the public display (or "hanging") of a lawbreaker's body "on a tree" (Deut 21:22) strictly commanding that the "body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day" (Deut 21:23; also see John 19:31). 

Grisly as such a practice seems today, it did set Israel apart from other nations. The degrading practice most often used throughout the ancient world was to allow the victim to rot in public. Persons so displayed (or "hanged") after execution by stoning for breaking Israel's Law were said to be "accursed of God." This helps explain the references to Jesus' being killed "by hanging on a tree" (Acts 5:30; 10:39) and the statement that Jesus was "cursed" in Gal 3:13. Although Jesus died in a different manner, He was publicly displayed as a criminal and enemy of the state. 

Ancient writers do not tell us much about how execution on a stake or cross was carried out. But excavated relief sculptures do show that the Assyrians executed their captured enemies by forcing their living bodies down onto pointed stakes. This barbaric cruelty was not crucifixion as we think of it today but impalement.

Scholars are not certain when a crossbeam was added to the simple stake. Jeremiah's mention of princes being "hung up by their hands" (Lam 5:12) by the Babylonians may refer to the use of a crossbeam. But there is no way of knowing whether the prophet speaks of a method of execution or the dishonoring of bodies killed in battle. The classical Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides refer to the stake or cross as a method of execution during the time of the Persians. But it is not clear whether the victim was tied or nailed to the wood or impaled. 

Ezra 6:11 provides clear evidence that the Persians continued to use impalement as a method of execution. The references to "hanging" in Esther (2:23; 5:14) probably refer to either impalement or crucifixion. The "hangman's noose" was not commonly used in Persia during the biblical period. The word translated as gallows in the NKJV refers not to a scaffold for hanging with a rope, but a pole or stake.

Crucifixion on a stake or cross was practiced by the Greeks, notably Alexander the Great, who hung 2,000 people on crosses when the city of Tyre was destroyed. During the period between Greek and Roman control of Palestine, the Jewish ruler Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 Pharisees who opposed him at Bethome. But these executions were condemned as detestable and abnormal by decent-minded people of Jannaeus's day as well as by the later Jewish historian, Josephus. 

From the early days of the Roman Republic, death on the cross was used for rebellious slaves and bandits, although Roman citizens were rarely subjected to this method of execution. The practice continued well beyond the New Testament period as one of the supreme punishments for military and political crimes such as desertion, spying, revealing secrets, rebellion, and sedition. Following the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity, the cross became a sacred symbol and its use by Romans as a means of torture and death was abolished. 

Death on a Cross
Those sentenced to death on a cross in the Roman period were usually beaten with leather lashes-a procedure which often resulted in severe loss of blood. Victims were then generally forced to carry the upper crossbeam to the execution site, where the central stake was already set up.

After being fastened to the crossbeam on the ground with ropes-or, in rare cases, nails through the wrist-the naked victim was then hoisted with the crossbeam against the standing vertical stake. A block or peg was sometimes fastened to the stake as a crude seat. The feet were then tied or nailed to the stake. 

The recent discovery near Jerusalem of the bones of a crucifixion victim suggests that the knees were bent up side-by-side parallel to the crossbeam and the nail was then driven through the side of the ankles. Death by suffocation or exhaustion normally followed only after a long period of agonizing pain.

The Shape of the Cross
In time the simple pointed stake first used for execution was modified. The four most important of the resulting crosses are: (1) the Latin cross (shaped like a lower case "t"), on which it seems likely that Jesus died for our sins, because of the notice placed above His head (Matt 27:37); (2) the St. Anthony's cross, which has the crossbeam at the top (shaped like a capital "T"); (3) the St. Andrew's cross, which is shaped like a capital "X"; (4) the so-called Greek cross which has the crossbeam in the center (shaped like a plus sign).

Significance of the Cross
The authors of the gospels tell us that the Lord Jesus spoke of the cross before His death (Matt 10:38; Mark 10:21; Luke 14:27) as a symbol of the necessity of full commitment (even unto death) for those who could be His disciples. But the major significance of the cross after Jesus' death and resurrection is its use as a symbol of Jesus' willingness to suffer for our sins (Phil 2:8; Heb 12:2) so that we might be reconciled (2 Cor 5:19; Col 1:20) to God and know His peace (Eph 2:16). 

Thus the cross symbolizes the glory of the Christian gospel (1 Cor 1:17); the fact that through this offensive means of death (1 Cor 1:23; Gal 5:11), the debt of sin against us was "nailed to the cross" (Col 2:14), and we, having "been crucified with Christ" (Gal 2:20), have been freed from sin and death and made alive to God (Rom 6:6-11). 

The cross, then, is the symbol of Jesus' love, God's power to save, and the thankful believer's unreserved commitment to Christian discipleship. To those who know the salvation which Christ gained for us through His death, it is a "wondrous cross" indeed.

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