Hung On a Tree

By Dr. Dan Hayden

Have you ever wondered why Jesus had to die on a cross? An altar on some mountain top might have been more fitting from an Old Testament point of view. In fact, that is what God arranged for Abraham in the sacrifice of his only begotten son, Isaac (Genesis 22). Or why didn't the religious leaders just stone Jesus to death as they did with Stephen sometime later (Acts 7)? After all, that was the means of capital punishment in Israel, and Pilate seemed willing to give them permission for that (John 18:31-32). But the rulers of the Jews wanted more than death. What was it that caused them to press Pilate for the crucifixion of Jesus? It seems that the cross was destined to be God's altar of sacrifice, not a pile of rocks.

The Jews have always had a problem with that. How could Jesus be the Messiah and die as a criminal on a Roman cross? For them, that is too much to accept. Almost any other type of death would have had more dignity than that.

Consider the fact that crucifixion is, without question, the most humiliating and degrading form of public death ever devised. First of all, it was a very slow agonizing death. Often it would last for days as the victim died more from suffocation than from bleeding. Furthermore, hanging naked in public along some well-traveled road added immensely to the sense of shame. Fully exposed like a carcass hanging on a rack, the victim experienced long hours of pain and an interminable time of humiliation. Crucifixion was not only ugly, it was inhuman.

Now when we understand that God had planned this event from eternity past (Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8), we are also confronted with the realization that God was in absolute control of everything that was happening. In God's plan, the timing was perfect (Galatians 4:4). The Romans were ruling in the Middle East and their method of criminal prosecution was crucifixion. It is what He wanted. He had chosen the Roman world as the stage of redemption and, therefore, the cross was no accident. It was perfect for what God had in mind.

ROMAN CRUCIFIXION

Crucifixion was a well-known and commonly practiced means of executing criminals in the ancient world. Herodotus, the Greek historian tells us that the Persians used crucifixion as a form of extreme punishment. Other sources reveal the practice among the Assyrians, the Scythians, and the Thracians as well as among more distant European groups such as the Celts, the Germans, and the Britons. On one occasion, Alexander the Great had 2000 survivors of the siege of Tyre crucified along the shores of the Mediterranean.

In the Roman mind, crucifixion was reserved for rebellious slaves, mutinous troops, vile criminals, and insurrectionists against the state. Roman citizens, especially the upper class, were normally exempt from such an ignominious death no matter what their crime. The reason for this was that crucifixion was viewed not just as a means of death, but also as a means of portraying shame. Therefore only the most despicable were crucified. To be hung on a cross meant more than that a crime worthy of death had been committed. It meant that the accused was considered to be a lowly, vile, reprehensible person, in addition to being a criminal. He was not only bad — he was base.

It was for this reason that crucifixion was done in very busy, public settings. Part of the intent, obviously, was to deter others from committing such crimes. Gerald O'Collins, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, quotes the Roman Quintilian (ca. 35-95 AD) as saying, "Whenever we crucify the guilty, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this fear" (Vol. 1, p. 1208). But the primary motive was to inflict the greatest amount of physical torment and public shame on persons of such reprehensible and detestable character. The Romans had more than retribution in mind. They were also expressing disgust and utter contempt.

JEWISH PRACTICE

Although the Jews never practiced crucifixion as a means of capital punishment (except during a brief interval during the Hellenistic-Hasmonean Period), they did have a similar custom for expressing a high degree of contempt for undesirable persons. After a criminal had been put to death by some other means (i.e., the sword, stoning, etc.), the dead body would be strung up on a tree as a symbol of shame and dishonor. This public exposure gave the people an opportunity to express their venomous hatred for such a despicable criminal as they hurled their insults and mockery at the strung-up victim.

Earl Kalland, commenting on the law regarding Israel's practice of hanging a condemned person on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) makes the following observation:

Hanging the body exhibited the person to public humiliation. The criminal was under the curse of God… the judgment that takes a person's life out of the covenant community as a perpetrator of the worst kind of sin and displays that judgment by the humiliation of hanging his body in public shows that that person is under God's curse. (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Vol. 3, pp. 134-135)

Stories are told in the American far west, of hunting parties combing the hills for a killer cat that had been raiding the herds and flocks — and perhaps even maiming members of the community who lived in outlying areas. As the mountain lion was found and killed, the irate citizens of the community would often hang the carcass on a pole in the center of town for a time, in order to give the people an opportunity to vent their anger on the devil cat. Anyone who wished could spit on it, strike it with a stick, punch it with their fists and in a variety of other ways express their anger at the despicable creature that had caused them loss and sorrow.

That is the same idea behind the Jewish practice of hanging a criminal's body on a tree. It was for this reason that Joshua hung the body of the king of Ai on a tree (Joshua 8:29) and the bodies of the five kings of the southern confederacy on five trees (Joshua 10:26-27). He was interested in more than their execution. Exposing them to public shame and ridicule was the primary motive for this practice.

OUR SUBSTITUTE

The Apostle Paul quoted from this Jewish law (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) as he described for us the reason for Christ's death on the cross, when he said, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law" (Galatians 3:13) [emphasis, mine]. You see, Christ not only died for our sins in a judicial sense, paying the required penalty for our crimes of disobedience; He also bore our "curse," the utter shame associated with our blatant disobedience against the God of the universe.

When Jewish leaders pressed Pilate for the sentence of crucifixion, they were expressing their contempt for anyone guilty of the sin of blasphemy — the sin of which they were accusing Jesus. They were not only clamoring for Jesus' death. Knowing that the Roman idea of crucifixion was paramount to their practice of hanging on a tree, they would be satisfied with nothing less than having Jesus crucified. They wanted Him put to shame. They wanted to demonstrate that He was cursed of God.

What they did not understand, however, was that Jesus was not dying for His own sin, but for their sins. As Paul, the converted Jewish Pharisee would one day seek to explain to them, Christ was bearing the very shame associated with their sin of willful disobedience against God.

And that is what we must also understand. Our sins of willful disobedience against a holy God are equally reprehensible. We are not only deserving of death, we are deserving of shame. You see, Pilate did not choose the cross for Jesus. Neither did the Jewish leaders of the Sanhedrin. God chose the cross, for it was the perfect means of inflicting death through the shedding of blood, while also expressing shame through public humiliation. No means of execution was ever more fitting to demonstrate the full punishment for sin. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), but it also shows us that the horror of sin is in its ultimate shame — as it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree" (Galatians 3:13).

When the writer to the Hebrews appealed to the death of Christ as an example for his readers to persevere in the midst of their trials, he mentioned three things associated with the death experience of our Lord. He said,

Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2, KJV).

You see, Jesus not only "endured the cross" as He suffered the physical torments of crucifixion; He also despised "the shame" as He hung in the place of ridicule. There were two things happening on that fateful day. Jesus was dying for our sins, but He was also bearing our infamous shame as He hung on a tree. Yet in doing that, He won an incredible victory over sin and death so that a third thing is said of him — He is "set down at the right hand of the throne of God." That is the place of honor now occupied by the victorious Son of God. The death and shame were incredibly difficult, but the accomplishing of our redemption was the basis of His joy.

Therefore, as you worship the Lord Jesus during the Easter season, reflect on the full meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on your behalf. Thank Him that He has redeemed you "from the curse of the law" (Galatians 3:13). Express your grateful praise to Christ for not only paying the penalty for your sin, but for also bearing your shame.

 

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