Tom Gilson

Ten Turning Points: The Humiliation of the Cross

From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference

“Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central event the humiliation of its God.”

That’s the opening sentence in Bruce L. Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. It sounds more like the end of a history than the beginning. Yet the weekend of Jesus’ death and resurrection was the single most crucial* turning point of all turning points. It was the crux** of all history.

Christianity teaches that Christ was God on earth, among us as one of us. That was the first humiliation, although one that he took on voluntarily for the sake of love. When I speak of the resurrection next week, we will see how humility was his pathway to highest honor. The cross was an essential step on that path.

It was as low as one could go, especially the way Jesus got there. He was arrested on trumped-up charges. He was marched from court to court, standing before the Jewish leaders, the local governor, and King Herod. They wanted him dead. They could come up with no really good reason to kill him, and they really didn’t want to do it for no reason at all; so rather than saying “looks like we’d better forget about the whole thing,” instead, they put on a show of justifying his condemnation among themselves.

There were some false witnesses handy; that helped. In a way, Jesus made it simple for the Jewish leaders (Matthew 26:57-66) when he placed himself in the center of a prophecy of God. They had him cold on charges of blasphemy, or so they thought. The problem was, blasphemy wasn’t the kind of thing to impress the Romans, who alone who had the authority to execute a man. In the end Pilate let his convictions collapse before the pressure of a crowd that preferred a murderer over Jesus Christ (Matthew 27:15-26, Mark 15:6).

What followed first was torture and mocking. It began immediately, just outside the governor’s quarters, and did not end until he had carried his cross to the hill (with the help of a bystander pressed into service when Jesus couldn’t carry it there on his own). There he was nailed to the frame. He hung there in suffocating agony, and finally breathed his last.

I am quite sure this is not the sort of fable that beleaguered communities make up to explain their existence and to encourage one another. Some scholars have proposed that idea, to explain where the crucifixion and resurrection “stories” got their start. I think they are the ones who have come up with the fable. It explains their existence as skeptical scholars of the New Testament, and with it they encourage one another.

Yet there is a side of me that says, “Even if I didn’t believe in Jesus I would follow him anyway.” Let me explain what I mean, for that could easily be misunderstood. I do not mean that the truth of history makes no difference to me. What I am saying instead is that we have one chance at life, and we can either make it up as we go along, or we can follow a great leader. There is incredible moral and personal strength in Jesus Christ, to a degree that makes him the example for the ages.

You will have to read more of his life in the original documents to really understand what I mean, but if you only look at his trial and crucifixion you will catch a large part of it. (You can find it near the end of any of the four Gospels, the first four books in the New Testament.) He was utterly humiliated. He stood at the mercy of men who hated him, who judged him unjustly, who tortured and killed him. Yet he never lost control of himself, never violated his identity or his principles. In the broader context, you find that he was in command not just of himself but of the whole situation, for there was a purpose for it all.

Through it all he kept his eyes and his heart open to others. From the cross he gave hope of eternity to the man dying next to him. He arranged for his mother’s care. He forgave his mockers, torturers, and executioners. He did it all in love.

So often we hear people saying their highest goal is to be true to themselves. Jesus met that goal in the most extreme circumstances. For him it was the right goal, for in staying true to himself he stayed true to what was really true—and not only true but also loving. (The rest of us ought to aim much higher than just being true to ourselves.)

So we see that Jesus remained strong and true in his humiliation. Next time: Why? Why the cross?

*crucial, “Origin: 1700–10; < Latin cruci– (stem of crux) cross” —
**crux: from the Latin crux, “cross, wooden frame for execution” — Wiktionary

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