Why Did Jesus Have to Die by Crucifixion?
Even if your introduction to Jesus was purely casual, you probably know he was crucified. Ever wonder why he died that way? I mean, wouldn’t it have been easier to drown in the Sea of Galilee, suffer a massive heart attack or even ingest fast-acting poison? But the Bible says crucifixion was the chosen means of his atoning death. After some careful study, here’s why I think it was necessary.
A little about crucifixion
Crucifixion was an incredibly painful and humiliating form of capital punishment used in ages past. It was also one of the most dreaded methods of punishment. It involved tying up the victim's hands and feet, then nailing them to a wooden cross of various designs. After death, the criminals body was usually left hanging on the cross to rot or feed the birds.
The word "crucifixion" comes from the Latin crucifixio, or crucifixus, which means "fixed to a cross." It’s the same root from which we get our word “excruciating,” so you can get an idea of how bad it is that we use the term as we do. Although in our time we usually think of it as a Roman form of punishment, there are accounts of crucifixions going back to very early civilizations. It likely originated with the Persians, but it was used most often by Alexander the Great.
In the Roman Empire, this form of punishment was generally reserved for the very worst law breakers like traitors, captured soldiers and the worst criminals. Because crucifixion was a very public punishment, the intent was it would be a good crime deterrent for the general population. It was the supreme penalty issued by the Romans.
Why it was so awful
Contrary to popular belief, the crucified did not die through loss of blood, but rather from asphyxiation, when they could no longer push their body up to draw breath. Crucifixion usually led to a slow, tortuous death. Some victims lasted as long as four days on a cross.
Victims were generally beaten or tortured before being taken to the crucifixion site. Such scourging produced both suffering and a huge loss of blood. The wounded criminal was then forced to carry the crossbeam (called a patibulum) to the execution site, where it would be fastened to an upright post or tree that was already standing there. Roman crucifixions were usually carried out in very public areas, especially near busy roads, so people walking by could see the awful result of incurring Roman wrath.
Nails were hammered through the wrists, not the palms as we picture it. This kept them from pulling through the hand. (Also note, in those times the wrist was considered part of the hand, so a description of the process would probably say “hand.”) The placement of the nails caused excruciating pain as the nails pierced flesh and pressed on large nerves running to the hands. The primary purpose of the nails was to inflict more pain.
The victim’s arms were stretched out on the crossbeam in such a way as to cause cramping of the chest muscles, making it impossible for them to breathe unless some of their weight was shifted to the feet. To take a breath, the victim would have to push up with his wounded feet. In addition to the incredible pain caused by the nail in his feet as he pushed, the victim’s raw back would rub against the rough wood of the cross every time he did this.
According to custom, the Roman Captain would lead the procession to the execution site carrying small white boards. He would use a piece of charcoal to write on these boards (in three languages so all could read them) the names of the criminals, and the nature of the crimes for which they were condemned. When they arrived at the cross, these notices would be nailed to the top of the cross, just above the head of the criminal.
While our depictions of Jesus on the cross show him high above the onlookers, this was not the case. Crosses were not tall. The feet of the criminal were only about three feet from the ground. This was done intentionally so he would hear all the jeers and mocking of the people passing by.
The Crucifixion Jesus Endured
Even before his crucifixion, Jesus was publicly beaten, mocked, and spit upon. A crown of thorns was forced on his head, causing even more blood loss. He was so weak, he fainted on the way to Golgotha and had to be helped to even get there.
Traditionally, before the criminal was nailed to the cross, he was offered a mixture of vinegar, gall, and myrrh to help relieve some of his suffering. Jesus refused it, choosing to remain awake and alert until he completed his task. He would meet and conquer death voluntarily.
It was customary to remove all clothing from those who were to be crucified, thus adding to their public humiliation. Since the Jews were greatly offended by the public exposure of a naked body, the soldiers sometimes put a loincloth on the criminal. This may have been the case with Jesus. As was the custom, the soldiers assigned to execute Jesus were permitted to divide his clothing among themselves. They gambled for the fine robe that had been placed on his back because it was too nice to tear apart.
Jesus hung on the cross for about six hours, around 9 a.m. till 3 p.m. During that time, people passed by shouting insults and spitting on him. Imagine how this affected Jesus. The people yelling insults and mocking him were the same ones he was dying for! He was suffering for crimes and sins he didn’t commit.
On occasion Roman soldiers would show mercy or just hasten the victim’s death so they could leave. Breaking the criminal's legs prevented him from pushing up to breathe. Death by asphyxiation would soon follow. But when the soldiers came to Jesus, he appeared already dead. Instead of breaking his legs, they pierced his side, through lungs and heart, to make sure he was dead.
Why it was so important
Romans 6:23 (NIV) For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. A crime against the law of God demanded a penalty.
Romans 3:23 (NIV) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All people who ever lived are guilty of this crime. Sin is not just breaking God’s laws, it is breaking his heart.
This sentence had to be carried out by the one who committed the crime. There was no sinful human being that could have ever have made this sacrifice for anyone else. The only substitute would have to be a person who was completely perfect and spotless. ( As the Passover lamb had to be with out spot or blemish to save the people from death.)
God’s perfect justice required the debt be paid. Still he sought a way to reconcile those sinners whom he loved, but who had separated themselves from him by their actions. Since only he is perfect and sin-free, only he could change the fate of others. But he had to be human to do this. The solution: Jesus was made flesh so he could pay the price. 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Imagine the weight of guilt and pain and rejection Jesus bore that day. He was dying for all the sin of all time.
But why death on the cross? Wasn’t there an easier way?
Jesus asked the same question in Matthew 26:42: Then Jesus went away a second time and prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this painful thing to be taken from me, and if I must do it, I pray that what you want will be done.” (NCV)
The Jewish people saw crucifixion as one of the most horrible and cursed forms of death (Deuteronomy 21:23). Galatians 3:13 states, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (ESV). The curse of sin had to be removed by paying the penalty. It was a legal issue, and all the requirements had to be met.
When he was stripped naked, Jesus took upon himself all the shame of everyone from all time. The shame of sin had to be borne. Death my falling or drowning did nothing to address this.
As the very people he was dying for passed him and jeered, he was totally humiliated for the sins of others. The humiliation and rejection of sin had to be addressed. Death in a private setting by natural means would not pay this price.
When his hands, feet and side were pierced, his blood flowed freely. Leviticus 17:11 states “For the life of the flesh is in the blood … for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” Hebrews 9:22 (NIV) adds, In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Blood had to flow to pay the penalty, so a heart attack would not do.
“But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed … (Isaiah 53:5). Per this prediction, he had to be condemned, bruised and whipped.
So, as Jesus took on the responsibility for the wrong doing of all people everywhere for all time on his shoulders, his “crime” was the worst ever committed. Under God’s law, his sentence had to be the worst punishment ever. Only crucifixion paid the price, in pain, humiliation, then death, for every type of sin. That is why Jesus could not die in any othefashion.