Jesus, Kingdom Builder — Climax of the Cross
Editor’s Note — Part 11 of Jesus, Kingdom Builder, a 13-part study of St. Matthew’s Gospel by Dr. Sri. The series will run every two weeks.
Roman crucifixion was a horrendous way to die. It didn’t just bring a criminal to his death, but it did so with the greatest possible pain and humiliation.
The act itself was not intended to strike at vital organs or cause terminal bleeding. Rather, it was meant to cause a slow and painful death through shock or asphyxiation as the body’s breathing muscles gradually collapsed – a process which sometimes took several days.
To inflict maximum humiliation, the condemned person was stripped naked, whipped 39 times, and tied or nailed to a post. Then he was raised up high and ridiculed by those passing by. In the process, the people could see very clearly what would happen to those who dared to resist Roman rule.
All this sent a strong message to people like the Jews who were subject to the domination of the Roman Empire. It said, “We control your entire nation. We can do whatever we want with you. We can even take your body, nail it to a slab of wood, and make you suffer this excruciatingly painful death. Don’t even think about rising up against us.” This is why the cross would have stood out for the Jews as a somber symbol of their desperate condition in exile and a constant reminder of their subjugation under the Romans.
A Crucified Messiah?
With this background in mind, it is understandable why many Jews in the first century would have been puzzled by a crucified Messiah. They were expecting the Messiah to lead them in triumph over the foreign oppressors and bring freedom to the land. Many would have looked at Jesus dying on the Cross and said, “How could this be the Messiah? The Messiah was supposed to defeat the Romans, not be defeated by them!” Far from appearing as a victorious king, Jesus would have seemed in their eyes to be more like a lost cause-another would-be messiah who let the people down. No wonder some people mocked Him on Calvary, crying out: “If He is the king of Israel, let him come down from the cross!”
The mystery of the Cross continues to confound people today. If Jesus was the promised Messiah, why did He die such a tragic death? Let’s take a look at how Christ’s moment of defeat is actually His greatest victory, how His utter debasement stands as His greatest exaltation, and how His death on the Cross actually is His enthronement as Messiah-King.
State of the Nation
One window into the mystery of the Cross is found in Jesus’ mission as Israel’s representative Messiah- King. Recall from previous articles that the Jews viewed their king as standing in the place of the entire nation. He was Israel’s royal representative, summing up the entire people in himself, so much so that what happened to the king would be understood as having happened to the people as a whole. Now we will see how Jesus, assuming that role as messianic representative, will bring Israel’s history to its climax on the Cross and carry the people to their ultimate destiny. To do this, we must first look at one element from Israel’s tradition which probably shaped the way the Jews looked at their own tragic history and hoped for Israel’s restoration more than anything else: the solemn covenant Israel entered into with Yahweh in the Book of Deuteronomy.
This foundational covenant, made just before the people entered the Promised Land, put before the Israelites two paths which would set the course of their history all the way up to the time of Jesus. One path was the way of faithfulness and covenant blessing, while the other was the way of unfaithfulness and destruction. Moses told the people that if they remained faithful to Yahweh, they would be blessed in the Promised Land. But if they proved unfaithful to Yahweh, they would close themselves off from God’s blessings and a series of curses would fall upon them. Fevers, illnesses, blindness, and leprosy would ravage the people. Famine, drought, and pestilence would cover the land. Foreign armies would constantly attack their nation.
The ultimate curse, however, was exile: Pagan empires would drive the Israelites out from the Promised Land and carry them away as slaves. Even their king would be handed over to the Gentiles, and Israel would be completely destroyed. With all this turmoil thrown onto Israel, it is no wonder that Moses described the horrors of the curses as a type of covenant death: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19).
Unfortunately, Israel did not choose the way of covenant faithfulness. In rejecting the God who wanted to bless them, Israel knew that it had suffered the painful effects of life outside the blessing, just as Deuteronomy had foretold. As the prophet Daniel explained, this was the background for understanding Israel’s sad state of affairs under foreign oppression: “And the curse and oath which are written in the law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him” (Dan. 9:11).
Friends in Low Places
How did Christ’s death on the Cross free Israel from all this mess? Sometimes, Jesus’ work of redemption is presented as if He simply stepped in and took our punishment by being crucified. In this perspective, Jesus was an innocent victim who took our penalty for us, freeing us from the divine wrath which we, as sinners, truly deserved.
The Scriptures, however, tell us there is something more to the mystery of the Cross. As the people’s messianic representative, Jesus did not die simply as a substitute for Israel, but in solidarity with Israel, especially in its lowest points. Throughout His ministry, Jesus went out to the darkest corners of the nation to meet people in places where their suffering was most acute and where the powers of evil ran most rampant. He reached out to the blind and the lame. He touched the untouchable lepers and dead bodies. He entered into intimate table fellowship with some of the most renowned sinners. And He even approached demoniacs to free them from the power of Satan.
Every step of the way, Jesus identified Himself with the sinners and outcasts who were considered ritually impure and estranged from the covenant. Yet, instead of being defiled by them, Jesus’ holiness overpowered their impurities, bringing physical healing and covenant restoration. In this way, Jesus met the people of Israel in the valley of their suffering and sin in order to unite Himself to them in their dismal condition and lift them up to blessing and new life.
All this came to a climax on the Cross. There, Jesus plunged into the depths of Israel’s agony. As Israel’s representative Messiah-King, He entered into the people’s intense suffering under foreign oppression as He Himself was taken away and crucified by the Gentile enemies. And there on the Cross, Jesus took the ultimate step of meeting Israel at its lowest point of all-its state of covenant death. In uniting Himself to Israel in its estrangement from God and in its covenant death as a nation, Jesus could lift them up out of the grave in the Resurrection. In joining Himself to the depths of Israel’s sufferings on Good Friday, He could raise them up with Him on Easter Sunday.
This was the real victory of the Messiah. Indeed, He truly set the people free, just as the prophets had foretold, but not in the way many expected. It was not a triumph over Caesar, Herod, and the Roman Empire, but a victory over the real enemies of the Jews: sin, death, and the forces of evil. It was a battle won not by swords and soldiers, but by the patient enduring of suffering and the radical outpouring of love and forgiveness. It was not an end of the geographical exile in being separated from control over their land, but the end of Israel’s deeper, spiritual exile in being separated from God.
Israel, however, was not the only nation that Jesus came to rescue. All the children of Adam suffered from a life estranged from God and cut off from His blessing. All humanity stood in need of Christ’s redemption. This is seen in the story of the human family’s first father, Adam.
Genesis 3 describes how Adam was tested by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and he broke covenant with God by eating from the forbidden tree. As a result, Adam faced several curses. His work would not be easy as it was in paradise. Now he would have to labor “in the sweat” (Gen. 3:19) while his harvest would yield “thorns and thistles” (Gen. 3:18). Even the ground on which he worked would be cursed (cf. Gen. 3:17). The ultimate curse, however, was death, when Adam would return to the ground at the end of his life: “for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).
In His Passion and death, Jesus entered into the curses of Adam, which had plagued humanity since the time of the Fall. Just as He did for Israel, Jesus also united Himself to the sufferings and curses of all the children of Adam. Like Adam, Jesus was tested in a garden-the Garden of Gethsemane-the night before He died (cf. Mt. 26:36-46). There, He took on Adam’s sweat, as His “sweat became like great drops of blood” falling from His face (Lk. 22:44). And He took on Adam’s thorns as the Roman soldiers mockingly placed a crown of thorns upon His head (cf. Mt. 27:29). Finally, Jesus even entered into Adam’s death by going to “a tree” (Gal. 3:13)-the wood of the Cross-and dying on Calvary. And like Adam, Jesus went down to the ground where He was buried-and it was precisely by meeting humanity at that despairingly darkest point that He could lift Adam and the human race out of the grave with Him in His victory over all sin and death on Easter morning (cf. Mt. 27:59-61; 28:1-10).1 As the New Adam, Jesus has redeemed not just Israel, but the entire human race (cf. Rom. 5:12-21).
Footnotes:  On the Adam-Christ parallels, see Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1998), 63-76.
Questions for Discussion:
- What would Roman crucifixion have symbolized for the Jews living under Caesar’s domination?
- Why would the Crucifixion of Jesus be such an obstacle to the Jews’ accepting Him as their Messiah-King? How does St. Matthew’s Gospel help to remove this obstacle and show that Jesus’ death on the Cross really is His moment of triumph as the Messiah-King?
- Read Genesis 3:17-19. How does Jesus take on the punishments of Adam in His Passion and death? What does this mean for us?
Reprinted with permission from the December 1999 issue of Lay Witness magazine. © 1999 Catholics United for the Faith / www.cuf.org/Laywitness/index.asp
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