As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
Where do you go to find kings today? It is hard to find kings anywhere, because most have been replaced by presidents and other elected officials. Still, there a few kings left, and if you find them anywhere, you will find them in palaces. You do not find them in apartments or hovels, or walking down the street. The last place you would ever expect to find a king is on a cross. Yet here in Matthew 27 we find the King of kings, the ruler of the universe, occupying the lowest possible place that men in their baseness have devised. He is hanging on a cross of rough wood, beaten, bleeding, mocked, and left to die.
The cross was so offensive to the Romans that they refused to allow their own citizens to be crucified. Cicero (106-43 B.C.) called crucifixion “a most cruel and disgusting punishment.”1 He said “It is a crime to put a Roman citizen in chains, it is an enormity to flog one, sheer murder to slay one; what, then, shall I say of crucifixion? It is impossible to find the word for such an abomination.”2 Indeed, writes pastor Philip Ryken, “There was no word for it. No polite word, at any rate, for the word for ‘cross’ was taboo in Roman society.”3 That is why Cicero also said, “Let the very mention of the cross be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.”4
If mention of the “cross” was offensive to the Romans, it was even more so to the Jews, for they saw it in the light of Deuteronomy 21:22, 23, which reads, “If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” They understood this to mean that a crucified person was abandoned by God. This explains why Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem. The act was so offensive to them that they would not allow it to take place within the sacred precincts of their city.
The early Christians knew all this. They often spoke of Jesus’ having been hanged on a tree, in specific reference to those critical verses in Deuteronomy (see Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24). Yet they were not ashamed of Christ’s cross. And like the Apostle Paul, who wrote about the “glory” of the cross, we also do not hesitate to let everyone know that Jesus died in this way. In fact, we use crosses to mark our graveyards and churches, and many wear crosses around their necks, Christians know that it was by being crucified on a cross that Jesus took the curse of God for our sin upon himself. Paul made this explicit when he wrote: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). The cross is not our shame but our glory, which is why we sing, In the cross of Christ I glory, Towering o’er the wrecks of time; All the of sacred story Gathers round its head sublime.
1 Marcus Cicero, In Verrem, II, 5, 165; in John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 24.2 Cicero, in Verrem, II, 5, 170; Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 24.3 Philip Graham Ryken, The Offense the Cross,” in James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken, The Heart of the Cross (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), p. 138.4 Cicero, Pro Rubirio, 5; in F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids; Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990), p. 338.