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Entering the Meaning of the Passion

Crucifixion History

Alexander the Great brought the practice of crucifixion to Egypt and Carthage from Persia. The Romans refined it to a form of torture and execution with precision that resulted in excruciating pain during prolonged dying. Our word, “excruciating,” comes from the Latin, “excruciatus” or “out of the cross.” I note “precision” because the Roman executioners were well trained in the exact placement of the spikes through the wrists and the metatarsal bones of the feet so as to not sever veins or arteries or break bones and joints required to hold a person’s weight on the cross. (The Scriptures refer to the piercing of the “hands” as did the Romans. Wrists were considered the “hands,” the base of them, and not considered part of the arms. Hands chopped off for punishment were cut below the wrists.)

The median nerve of the wrist and hand was severed or damaged however, causing a claw-response paralysis of the hands and excruciating pain down the arms meeting the incredible pain from the nerve damage in the feet. The intent was to inflict great pain without the victim dying from bleeding. The feet were not nailed to a block on the post of the cross to help hold the body, but so the person could push up with his feet to take the weight off the diaphragm so he could exhale. When the person would push up to exhale intense pain from the median nerves in hands and feet would shoot through the body. The feet where nailed to prolong the agony. Breaking the person’s legs below the knees would bring death due to asphyxiation quickly.

Roman law required the crucifixion victim be given a sour drink of wine and myrrh to help take a little edge off the intense pain and aid the mental endurance to prolong the process of torture before dying. By design, crucifixion itself wasn’t manifestly bloody. But Roman law also required pre-crucifixion scourging or whipping of the person’s back to lacerate skin and muscle and to expose epidermal nerves. The induced bleeding was monitored so to not induce pre-crucifixion death. The flailing of flesh, muscle and nerve would, however, magnify the suffering with every movement, with every touch or removal of clothing, with every movement required for breathing on the cross as rough wood rubbed raw nerve and muscle.

These severe wounds would weaken the victims and intoxicate them with pain, but not to the extent that they could not carry the cross beam the third or half mile outside the city walls to the permanently mounted wood shafts upon which they would be hung. (Jesus, however, with the added torture and blood loss from thorns hammered into His head, needed help and got it, since the Roman execution guard feared His pre-mature death on the way. The ordering of Simon into Roman service in helping Jesus was not an act of Roman compassion.) In the process of being nailed and hung, the scourging wounds would scream pain, become filled with grainy dirt, and emit smells that attracted vermin from flies and burrowing insects (finding places in the ears, eyes, noses and mouths) to vultures and wild animals that were allowed to tear the still alive and conscious body.

Due to the calculating and precise application of measured torture against the onset of death, crucified persons would typically hang for perhaps a week, even longer. The bodies were usually left as food for predatory animals. Roman law allowed the family of the victim to take the body, but only after securing a decree of permission from the local Roman judge or governor. And before the family could do so, the execution guard had to certify death, by either skelokopia (breaking of the legs) or by lancing the heart through the right side of the chest.

Childhood Learning

When I was a little child, the way the Christian teachings and stories were presented led me to think that only Jesus was scourged and crucified. Yes, there were two others with Him, but the images depicted in books showed them bound with ropes on their crosses while Jesus was nailed. My imagination horrified me as I wondered what that death felt like. I was taught that God used Jesus to die in my place, yet I also knew I was going to die anyway, but go to heaven instead of hell. Confused, I wondered if He was a substitute for me, why then wasn’t He in hell forever in my place too? I knew the story of Abraham being ordered to sacrifice his son, and just at the last moment that horrible task was called off and a ram was substituted. But the ram wasn’t good enough, I was taught, because animals couldn’t die in my place since the destiny of death in sin was hell and animals didn’t go to hell. But as far as I could understand, neither did Jesus, not forever anyway, like I was destined. “The penalty (wages) of sin is [eternal] death” and Jesus took my place but somehow He didn’t incur eternal death as I would have.

My little analytical mind grew more confused when I learned through my historical readings that Jesus was only one of the thousands who suffered crucifixion. This Reflection opened with a technical description of a common practice performed by many cultures before the Romans. My purpose was to underscore that historical reality and how refined execution by crucifixion became over a couple of centuries, not to horrify the reader with the degree of torture of this form of capital punishment.

As a child I learned the apostle Peter had also endured crucifixion, but upside down. I thought that must have been worse than Jesus’ crucifixion! So my attention turned to the anguish of Jesus just before His arrest. Jesus couldn’t have been sweating blood, being “filled with sorrow to the point of death,” needing an angel to strengthen Him so He wouldn’t die there in Gethsamane, and praying three times for God to find another way, if another was possible.

Physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, Jesus was far stronger and willed than Peter and all the other thousands that faced death by crucifixion. Horrible as the prospect of crucifixion was, something else must have been going on.

Made Sin

Another source of confusion was encountering the verse, “He was made sin for us.” (2 Corinthians 5:21.) That, however, was the spark of a tiny grasp of this mystery. I was never taught I was made of sin. I am sin-full, and “in sin I was conceived.” (Psalm 51:5.) But “made” of sin? No. I am made of matter, soul and spirit. Jesus was “begotten, not made” by God. Yet, at the crucifixion, He was “made sin.” Now I was getting somewhere in comprehending a tiny bit of what this intense, blood-sweating passion of Jesus was about, and it wasn’t about His fear of the Roman means of crucifixion over that of the Jewish means of stoning or any other mode of execution. It had to do with being “made sin.”

My delightful and free explorations in the beloved forests as a child often resulted in my being covered with mud and slime or soaked with water and dirt. That washed off. I was never made into mud, slime, water or dirt. I was made fun of, but never made fully into the fun of others. I despaired and I got angry, but I was never fully made of despair or anger to the exclusion of my essential being. If I had been, I would have died, since there is no life in fully and completely being made into despair or anger or humiliation to the exclusion of all else. Otherwise, I would have cried, “Oh God, my Father! Why have you forsaken me? Forsaken me to this?” because I would have seen everything through the eyes of incarnate despair, anger or humiliation into which I was made, blind to all other realities of being.

These musings of my personal experience are infinitely trivial compared to pondering what it meant for the pure, immaculate Incarnation of the Holy Spirit of the Creator of all to have been “made sin” (while not ever having sinned), as opposed to just “dying for our sins.” It is a passion of incomprehensible love!

Mysterious Foolishness

In some evangelical circles, “foolishness” is hailed as a virtue, citing in support, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?...The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Corinthians 1:20, 25, NIV). Too often the understanding of this is corrupted into an intolerance of biblical scholarship... “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” “End of discussion,” unfortunately.

Jesus, however, declared, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12-13a). “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Hebrews 5:11-12).

In all things God created there is a wonderful simplicity along with infinite depths of mystery and complexity. The psalms reflect, “If I could count all your thoughts and ways, I would have to live eternally like you, O Lord!” (And some people actually think they’ll be bored in heaven just “resting” forever.)

Sin is Sin and More

In the simple basic encounter, “sin is sin.” But “water is water” too. Should I wish to navigate through water, however, I must understand its ways while flowing over rocks in whitewater and waterfalls, how it falls from the sky in white crystalline snow or hard hail, how different it is when sitting in a well than when gushing out as a stream between rock crevices. Water is water, but it is also ice, frost, snow, hail, mist and invisible humidity.

From rain forests to deserts, water infused all life. It is a state of living, and condition of being. And so it is with sin that takes many forms and follows many ways. Like water, sin can be splashed around in violence or poured to inundate life... “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck...I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me” (Psalm 69). And like water, sin is a pervasive condition of life on earth even when it isn’t obviously evident. “In sin I was conceived” (Psalm 51). That is a state of being, a condition of living in the body. At the very genesis of conception, sin is imbedded in all, like our imperfect DNA strands in every cell. This is what is meant by “the fallen state” of humankind. Paul describes it as a governing principle: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it...Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:14-20, 24b-25, NIV).

This chronic, pervasive condition of spiritual and physical death called sin is both static and dynamic, like molten rock in an active volcano that always percolates deep within as magma and episodically explodes as lava, bringing destruction to all around it. Some volcanoes are “nicer” than others, like the dormant ones, but they are still volcanoes. The sin pervading humans individually and collectively has caused more destruction, pain, violence, supreme suffering and physical, emotional and spiritual devastation than all the volcanoes, floods, earthquakes or other natural heaves of energy by the earth, a zillion times more. There are no survivors in the onslaught of sin. Just death without any hope of a resurrection or recovery.

The Suffering of Becoming Sin

Into this Jesus was made, “made sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In the “Passion of the Christ” film, the evil entity suggests to Jesus during His prayer watch in Gethsemane, “You think you can bear the sins of the whole world?...No man is capable.” To be made sin, to bear all sin, to incorporate the sin of every person who ever lived, is living now, and will be born in sin to live, is to enter the portals of death and incorporate every evil impulse, every seed of evil, every commission of evil, over all time and all creation, into oneself. Indeed, no mere man, woman or child is capable of doing that on his or her own behalf, let alone for others.

As the Christ, God incarnated into this tragically horrible human condition. “I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold...I am restoring what I did not steal” (Psalm 69). Millions of tons of dead waste from humans, animals, plants and all organisms are deposited onto the earth every day. Miraculously, the earth transforms this waste into nutrients that grow new life. Earth’s ability to “restore what it didn’t steal” gradually weakens and dies as it, too, becomes overloaded with toxins. Christ incarnated into Himself the full corruption and consequences of all sin and evil. During His passion in Gesthsemane and on the Cross, Jesus the Christ subjected Himself to the totality of human evil, pain, suffering, despair, death and more than words are able to describe. As all that surged through every fiber of His being, He became it all.

The Pain of the Body Versus that of the Spirit

The anticipation of physical pain was dwarfed by the prospect of needing to “drink this cup.” Jesus’ soul was not “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” and He didn’t sweat blood and require angelic attending for strength to prepare for a physical crucifixion. “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will, O God” (Hebrews 10:5-7). “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27). We couldn’t even smell the cup Jesus was preparing to drink without curling up into excruciating throes of death.

Redemption Accomplished

Only Yahweh could be made into the sin of the world; only the I AM loves enough to be made into the sin of His creation. Only Yahweh can suffer the infinite depths required and die such a complete and total death. Only He could resurrect the Christ from such depths, from such a death. Death was transcended into redemptive victory and “captivity [itself] was made captive,” slavery itself made a slave. We were all there on Golgotha. “If we died with him, we will also live with him” (2 Timothy 2:11). “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (Isaiah 25:8).

“For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows. The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek Yahweh will praise him – may your hearts lives forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to Yahweh, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to Yahweh and he rules over the nations. All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him – those who cannot keep themselves alive. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about Yahweh the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn – for he has done it – It is accomplished – It is finished!” (Psalm 22).

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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