A man is hanging on a wooden cross from stakes driven through his hands and feet.
This is the most widely recognized and revered image in human history. Billions of people over twenty centuries have venerated it. Countless thousands of artists have depicted it. Countless millions have mounted these depictions in their homes, carried them in their pockets, hung them from their necks and ears, even tattooed them into their skin. This image of a dying man.
And he is not merely dying; he is being executed. By crucifixion, no less. Does that strike you as odd? That the most famous image of all time is of a man in the horrific throes of death by one of the most barbarous, hideous forms of capital punishment depraved minds ever devised? It’s typically not a sign of good mental or moral health when people fixate on gruesome torture and death — not to mention wearing depictions of it as jewelry. It’s a strange phenomenon.
What is it about Jesus’s agony that has captivated so many? Why has it captivated us? Why are we engrossed in the very moment of his utter humiliation, when he’d been betrayed and deserted by those closest to him, accused and condemned by those in power over him, mocked and taunted by those who gathered to watch the grisly spectacle of his death?
This is what we want most to remember about him? This is the most memorialized moment in history? What kind of people are we?
It’s an important question. This is not the typical way people have historically honored their greatest martyred heroes.
Think about it. How many of the most iconic memorials to our most honored and beloved martyred heroes are graphic depictions of their violent deaths? Why don’t we hang framed prints in our homes and schools of Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. with fatal head wounds? Why didn’t ancient Greek sculptors create busts of Socrates in the throes of suffocation from hemlock poisoning? Why aren’t the most inspiring portraits of William Wallace of his disembowelment? Why not Mahatma Gandhi being shot in the chest? Why don’t our memorials to fallen soldiers feature images of mangled bodies?
And wasn’t Jesus’s death penultimate? Isn’t the climax of his story and the Christian hope his resurrection? Wasn’t his death on the cross a prelude of apparent defeat that was swallowed up by the victory of his emergence from grave? Why don’t we feature depictions of an empty tomb at the front of our church sanctuaries? Why don’t we hang that in our houses and around our necks? Why have we chosen to remember and memorialize his terrible crucifixion, an event so horrid to witness that it would have made most of us nauseous and some of us faint?
Either we are a very strange people or there is something very strange about Jesus’s death.
How Jesus Wanted to Be Remembered
If we are a strange people for making Jesus’s torturous death a central focus of our private and public remembering of him, Jesus himself made us so. It’s how he wanted to be remembered.
“Either we are a very strange people or there is something very strange about Jesus’s death.”
Before the dreadful event, he repeatedly told his disciples that he must “suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). His death was necessary.
More than that, he told them, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). And to make sure we understand what he meant, John adds, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33). His crucifixion would be the great draw.
More than that, on the night Jesus was betrayed and deserted, accused and condemned, during his Last Supper, he instituted a tradition to help his followers remember what was about to take place. He broke bread to symbolize the intentional sacrifice of his body, which, he said, “is given for you.” And he poured out wine to symbolize, as he said, “the new covenant in my blood.” Then he said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19–20). His death is what he wanted memorialized.
And more than that, after his resurrection, Jesus captured in one sentence why his death was necessary and why it would draw all people to him:
Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46–47)
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to be the final Passover Lamb of God, whose willing, necessary, sacrificial death would take away the sin of the world — necessary, because without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin. And henceforth, whoever would believe in the Son would not perish but have eternal life (John 1:29; 3:16; Hebrews 9:22).
The apostle Paul captured in one sentence the connection between the memorial meal Jesus instituted and the gospel proclamation to the nations: “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
The Kind of People We Are
What kind of people are we who are so captivated by the image of a crucified man? The kind of people who have good reason to be so. A supremely good reason. A reason we glimpse in words this man uttered in his moment of utter desolation, words of life he used his dying breath to say on behalf of people like us: “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34).
“Our only hope before a holy God is that, in love, he will mercifully provide a way to righteously forgive our sins.”
The kind of people who need forgiveness are sinful people, and that’s the kind of people we are (Romans 3:23). We are the kind of people whose only hope before a holy God is that, in love, he will mercifully provide a way to righteously forgive our sins. And “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
This is what makes Jesus unlike any other martyred hero in history. All other martyrs laid their lives down for a cause they believed worth dying for, but their deaths weren’t inherently necessary to their cause. Given different circumstances, their aims conceivably could have been achieved through other means. But Jesus’s death was inherently necessary to achieve his aim: “to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). It was a strange death, for it was a moral, judicial, merciful necessity at the very core of ultimate and eternal reality.
We do not remember Jesus’s death at the expense of his resurrection, for the cross would have been in vain without the empty tomb (1 Corinthians 15:12–19). The two are inextricably connected. But this is why Jesus’s death is so central in what we remember about him. This is why it’s the most memorialized moment in history. Because of the kind of people we are.
Behold the Man
Behold this man hanging on a wooden cross from stakes driven through his hands and feet.
It’s a horrid image. And it’s beautiful. It’s tragic. And it’s hopeful. This man is the tortured Paradox. His execution was simultaneously history’s most despicable act of injustice and most noble act of justice, an utterly merciless death and an utterly merciful death, the supreme display of hatred and the supreme display of love.
This is why people like us paradoxically call the day Jesus horribly died Good Friday. This is why we find the cross so wondrous, so captivating. This is why it moves us to sing,
Behold the man upon a cross,
My sin upon his shoulders.
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held him there
Until it was accomplished;
His dying breath has brought me life,
I know that it is finished. (“How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”)