ALK INTO A CATHEDRAL, A church, the jewelry department at Wal-Mart, an edgy art museum, a rock concert, a cemetery, and you can’t miss it. Sometimes in gold, sometimes silver, sometimes wood. In the form of pendants, pins, paintings, tattoos. They’re everywhere: crucifixes, crosses.
But symbols are only as valuable as the stories and metaphors that give them meaning. What does the cross mean to you? And what did it mean to the various individuals who participated in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion? What did it mean to the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the political leaders, law enforcement people, the criminals crucified with Him, ordinary citizens? Many of these played pivotal roles in the significant event, but were too blind to realize it. How could they have ignored the overwhelming evidences for Christ’s claim to be the Messiah? How could they have missed the point?
To answer these questions, it may be helpful to understand a little about the Jews and their relationship to the Romans at that time in history.
How the Religious Leaders Missed It
It’s Passover, A.D. 31, and the Romans occupy the Jewish homeland. The Roman emperor appoints kings over various regions of the kingdom and delegates oversight (especially for tax matters) to procurators (local governors) like Pilate. However, the relationship between Pilate and his subjects is tense. They frequently complain to Rome about his offensive actions, such as defiling the Temple with images of Roman deities and using Temple taxes to build an aqueduct.1
The Romans, however, share governing power with the religious council, the Sanhedrin, relying on that body to facilitate cooperation on secular-political matters. For its part, the Sanhedrin depends on the Romans to enforce religious laws. One result of this symbiosis is that Jewish high priests are political appointees of the Roman rulers.
The Sanhedrin itself is dominated by the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees are the scholars and teachers who carry out the day-to-day activities of the council. Their knowledge of the Scriptures and the religious law means they are wedded to specific paradigms of thought. Their knowledge and experience have led them to discount (or disbelieve) the way prophecy will be fulfilled, and Jesus does not fit the picture of the Messiah they’ve been expecting. Jesus refuses to give them a sign (see Mark 8:11, 12), and keeps emphasizing that liberating the Jews from Roman oppression is not His mission—and that frustrates the Jewish leaders.
The Sadducees are the political party of the aristocratic priests, and they hold the formal leadership of the Sanhedrin. Their privileged position and power give them a significant stake in the Roman political system and its policies. They are so focused on taking care of business (not to mention maintaining their social status) that they have no reason to believe in a messianic future.
After Jesus begins His ministry, it quickly becomes clear to the Pharisees and Sadducees that they have a problem on their hands. First, many people believe Him. (Many of these are socially undesirable, however, and Jesus gets tagged as “a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” [Luke 7:34]).* His followers accept His claim to have the power and authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:5-11). This is significant since the political power that the religious leaders enjoy is directly related to their ability to control their supporters, and this potential erosion of their base will weaken their political standing.
Second, Jesus’ message is countercultural and antiestablishment. For example, He breaks their Sabbath laws by healing the sick on that day, allowing His disciples to pluck the ears of corn, and even claiming to be the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). He and His disciples violate ceremonial laws of purification (Luke 11:37-41; Mark 7:6-13). He criticizes the religious leaders, telling people to “beware of the scribes,” for their callousness and pride. They are destined for “condemnation,” He tells the people (Mark 12:38-40). He evicts the moneychangers from the Temple and upbraids the religious leaders, charging: “You have made this house a den of thieves” (Mark 11:17). His prediction of the destruction of the Temple also directly threatens their power. (It’s not enough that He takes away their supporters, but He threatens their jobs, as well!)
Over the course of Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other religious leaders repeatedly question Him about His violations of the Sabbath, about His authority to forgive sins, about the resurrection, even about whether or not the Jews should submit to Caesar. Such encounters serve only to reinforce in their minds the idea that Jesus is an agent provocateur on questions of theology, ideology, and the political balance of power. The very public resurrection of Lazarus raises the tension to a breaking point. “The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, ‘What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation’” (John 11:47, 48).
To prevent what they fear would be a holocaust, the reigning high priest, Caiaphas, offers a suggestion. “‘It is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish,’” he says (John 11:49, 50). So in true Machiavellian form, they sacrifice due process in pursuit of their political goals; they manipulate public opinion and mobilize their supporters. They even violate their own laws and solicit false testimony from witnesses to condemn Jesus.
For the Pharisees and Sadducees, then, the cross represents a solution to their political problems, providing assurance of political stability and guaranteeing the status quo. Political power blinds them to their duties as spiritual leaders and intercessors. As Malachi laments: “‘For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘Therefore I also have made you contemptible and base before all the people, because you have not kept My ways but have shown partiality in the law’” (Mal. 2:7-9).
How the Political Leaders Missed It
To the secular leaders such as Pilate and Herod, the cross marked reconciliation and the beginning of useful political alliances. Pilate, in particular, is constrained by his dependence on religious leaders for political support and his own desire for stability in his region. He knows that the Sanhedrin was biased and that Jesus didn’t get a fair trial. He believes Jesus is innocent, but he faces a dilemma: either execute an innocent man, or offend the Jews. And if he wishes to contradict the Sanhedrin ruling, then he must have some legal or political justification for it.
Several readers spotted the chronology mistake in the print edition of the March 22 cover story, “How Do We Experience the Cross Today?” Mea culpa! Mea culpa! With three issues of the magazine in various stages of production at any given time, we’re processing almost 65,000 words every week. And every so often some detail (sometimes significant, sometimes insignificant) slips by us in plain view. But no, we’ve not changed our position. And yes, we still hold to the 31 AD date for the crucifixion of Jesus—Editors.
Accordingly, he appeals to public opinion, perhaps hoping that the people will be more reasonable than their leaders. He offers to release Jesus as part of the Passover custom, but the Pharisees successfully manipulate public opinion against that idea.
As Pilate continues to delay in taking action against Jesus, the Pharisees and Sadducees reframe their arguments. Instead of alleging that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy, they instead appeal to Pilate’s political instincts for self-preservation: “‘If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar’” (John 19:8-14).
In this approach, they exploit Pilate’s political Achille’s heel. They argue that Jesus’ claim to be King of the Jews is not just a problem for the religious leaders, but is a real threat to the civil authorities. And to ratchet up the pressure, they mobilize public demonstrations to remind Pilate of his tenuous position with the Jews and their emperor.
With this, the Pharisees and Sadducees successfully overcome Pilate’s dilemma. He can now view the decision as one that ensures political stability and preserves his office. For Pilate, then, the cross is a pacifier. It quells the passions of an unruly mob. Machiavelli writes of “how the Romans availed of religion to preserve order in their city, and to carry out their enterprises and suppress disturbances.”2
So the cross provides assurance of continued stability and guarantees the status quo. Like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Pilate, how often do we use the cross to manipulate people? Do we sometimes find it expedient to use it as a means to an end—to suppress opposition or rebellion, perhaps?
Some Saw the Cross as “a Job”
To the law enforcers, the soldiers, the cross was a job. Admittedly, a rather gruesome one, but somebody has to do it. What’s a little torture or humiliation to someone who is going to die anyway, they reason; someone whose crimes are so heinous that they deserve to die?
But the cross also generated tangible rewards. Each crucifixion meant that the soldiers could claim the garments of the executed. To these ordinary people, whose jobs put them on the side of the law, the cross represented job security. It was a symbol of financial stability and a guarantee of the status quo.
Unfortunately, when the cross becomes, so to speak, just another job to us, we become like those ancient law enforcers, desensitized to its real purpose and meaning.
Some Saw It as a Guarantee of Their Sinful Status Quo
For Barabbas, the cross represented liberation from prison. Barabbas was a “notorious” criminal who had been arrested for rebellion and murder, which suggests he had committed crimes against both individuals and the state. He was not your garden-variety, misguided youth; rather, he was like a terrorist. The cross, in a sense, freed Barabbas to return to his life of crime. It guaranteed, so to speak, his sinful status quo.
Some of us, like Barabbas, seem to think the cross gives us a free pass to return to our old ways. Glory Hallelujah, I’ve been redeemed! Where’s my dope?
Some Saw It as Confirming Their Self-righteousness
To the passersby, the cross represents the justice and the power of the law, confirming its superiority over everyone. They can stroll by and see all those disgusting criminals getting what they deserve, and remind themselves that they are somehow better than those people hanging on the cross.
I like how Mark describes the scene: “Those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself, and come down from the cross!’” (Mark 15:29, 30).
To these onlookers, bystanders, ordinary people, the cross represents good riddance to the bottom-feeders. The cross gives them, as it were, an excuse to dehumanize others.
In our lives today, how often do we use the cross to exalt our own righteousness and superiority? In what ways do we use the cross to devalue and dehumanize others?
Which Thief Speaks for You?
Finally, to the thieves beside Jesus the cross represents final justice. But it also holds the hope of salvation. One criminal says: “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us” (Luke 23:39). It’s the same thing everyone else has been saying about Christ. But it is also a pretty arrogant assertion. What makes this convict think He should be saved? He wants something for nothing. He wants liberty without atonement. The cross could be his winning lottery ticket.
How often do we find ourselves in a similar mind-set? How often do we bargain with God for selfish gain? “If You are God, gimme this! If You are God, do that!”
The other thief is quick to see this hypocrisy, and rebukes him: “‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong’” (Luke 23:40-43). This thief acknowledges his own guilt. In his agony, he does not hope for liberation. He is prepared to die. And yet he yearns for his life to have some meaning.
So the thief asks simply that his existence be acknowledged. “‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom,’” he says. And Jesus said to him, “‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:40-43). To this thief, the cross provided assurance that his life, no matter how corrupt or abbreviated, had meaning.
When we take a second look at the trial and Crucifixion, it’s not so hard to see why nearly everyone missed the point back then. To them the cross (killing Jesus, in other words) represented stability and the status quo—even if that stability amounted to the continued oppression and occupation by the Romans (in league with the Sanhedrin). What they valued was tradition, religious law, and ceremony. Committed to this legalistic outlook, they could not see in the cross the promise of new life and dynamic change.
This story also hints at the consequences of being overly reliant on political power for the achievement of our religious and spiritual goals. It shows just how easily we can deceive and be deceived if, like the Pharisees, we fail to update our beliefs through continued study, and are content to rest on preconceived notions of God and His prophecies.
It’s not difficult to see how we easily can miss the point today.
So, when next you view that wondrous cross, what will it mean to you?
*All scripture references are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1J. D. Douglass and Merril C. Tenney, NIV Compact Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Harper Collins, 1989),
2Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince and the Discourses, Modern Library College Edition (New York: Random House, 1950), p. 153.
Michelle L. Chin is an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.