When the apostle Paul came to Corinth, he ‘decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2). The cross of Christ lies at the heart of the Christian faith.
By ‘the cross’ we refer not to its wood, but its work — the redeeming work of Christ for sinners.
There was nothing particularly unusual about crucifixion in the first century. Gruesome and barbaric though it was, it was a common capital punishment when the Romans ruled.
When Christ was crucified, however, some very unusual events occurred which can only be explained supernaturally. These show that Christ’s crucifixion was as much an act of God as of cruel men.
Let us consider three such unusual events. First, when Christ died at Calvary, a supernatural darkness covered the land. ‘When the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour’ (Mark 15:33). From noon to 3.00pm, one day in Spring, it became midnight at midday! Something unique was happening.
Isaac Watts gave a clue when he wrote:
Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut its glories in,
When Christ the mighty Maker died
For man the creature’s sin.
Darkness in the Bible refers to divine judgement. Hell — the ultimate in divine judgement — is described by Jesus as ‘outer darkness’, where ‘men will weep and gnash their teeth’ (Matthew 8:12). Joel 2:2 describes God’s judgement as ‘a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness’.
The darkness of Calvary is explained by the fact that there Christ was being judged by God, not for his own sins, for he had none; but for the sins of others.
He was judged for our justification. He was punished, so that by believing in him we might be pardoned. He endured the darkness of hell, so we might forever bask in the light of heaven.
Isaiah prophesied: ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole and with his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5), and the earliest ever Christian creed states succinctly that, ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:3).
Jesus then was forsaken by God in the depths of divine judgement, so that believers might be lifted up to the glories of heaven.
When Christ died at Calvary, the Bible tells us that ‘the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom’ (Mark 15:38). This has no natural explanation.
The Jerusalem temple was modelled on the ancient tabernacle and divided into the holy place and holy of holies. The omnipresent God presenced himself in the holy of holies in a special way. Access to it was limited and barred, and a great curtain separated it from the holy place.
Only the high priest could enter the holy of holies, and only once a year with sacrificial blood on the annual Day of Atonement. But when Jesus died at Calvary, the curtain which prohibited entrance was torn in two.
It shows that the death of Christ accomplished something. He did not just die as a martyr or example, but as an atoning sacrifice for sinners. Sinners separated from God may now be reconciled to God, and gain access to God through the death of Christ.
‘We have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is through his flesh’ (Hebrews 10:19).
Thirdly, when Christ died at Calvary, a miracle occurred in the heart of a hardened sinner.
The Roman centurion supervising Christ’s crucifixion had no doubt witnessed many crucifixions in his time. Yet he was forced to confess that there was something very different about this one.
‘When the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God!’ (Mark 15:39). Almighty God had opened his eyes, so that he could see that Jesus was the very Son of God.
The value of Calvary lies in the identity of the one who died there. Only the eternal Son of God could offer himself up as an eternal sacrifice to atone for sinners. His blood alone can cleanse us from our sins and make us fit for heaven.
Yes, in the first century, crucifixion was a common event. But the crucifixion of Christ was unparalleled and unique. It alone saves from hell’s darkness, reconciles sinners to God, and is the sure ground of eternal salvation for all who, by God’s grace, put their faith in the crucified Christ.
For these reasons, every Christian has cause to say with Paul, ‘Far be it from me to glory, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world’ (Galatians 6:14).
Dr Cross has authored many Christian books and articles, and has an honorary doctorate of sacred literature, from Christian Bible College, Rocky Mount, NC