Crucifixion would be a nasty way to die. Back in ancient times, it was performed by nailing the victim to a wooden cross for long, excruciating (literally “out of the cross”) death. It was employed throughout ancient history - specifically during the Assyrian, Median, Persian and Greek empires - as a particularly torturous form of capital punishment. Similarly, the Romans used it as their most severe form of execution, but no Roman citizen could be crucified because it was considered too agonizing and disgraceful.
Crucifixion was certainly common practice in the Roman province of Judea in the first century. Reading between the lines of the Bible, Barabbas may have been slated for execution this way. He was the ideal candidate: Matthew called him a notorious prisoner (Mt 27:16); Mark called him a rebel, murderer, and insurrectionist (Mk 15:7;); Luke also called him a murderer and insurrectionist (Lk 23:19; Act 3:14); and John called him a thief (Jn 18:40). Chances are he was all of the above, possibly a leading member of the Zealots, a fanatical religious party responsible for some of the earliest terrorism in recorded history. Barabbas - the very worst type of criminal - was condemned to be crucified, until Jesus took his place.
Exactly what the cross looked like or how its victims were affixed to it isn’t clear, but most scholars agree a variety of forms were employed. Despite the thousands of crucifixions that were recorded to have occurred, only one crucified body has ever been discovered. In 1968, the remains of a man were found in Jerusalem, having had large spikes driven from the sides through his heel bones. However, his wrist bones were intact, suggesting spikes had been driven through the space between his forearm bones rather than the hands, if at all.
The grisly practice of crucifixion evolved from impaling dead bodies on stakes to discourage civil disobedience. Over time, victims weren’t killed beforehand and horizontal beams were attached to better accommodate a hanging body. To hang them from the cross, the arms of the victim were first attached to a crossbeam with ropes, leather straps, and/or large iron nails, which was then raised onto a vertical stake that had been planted in the ground. Finally, the feet or legs were fastened to the stake in a similar fashion and the victim was left to hang for however long it took to die.
There's a strong possibility the victims of crucifixion were hung naked, since we see in the Bible that the Roman soldiers divided Jesus' clothes among them (Matt 27:35). He likely would have had an outer covering (robe), inner covering (single piece of linen wrapped around the body), sandals, belt, and possibly a head covering (turban?), all of which became the property of the attending soldiers when he was nailed to the cross. This presumption that Jesus was naked on the cross is also suggested by the Bible passages that talk about the shame of the cross (Heb 12:2), although that could also refer to other shameful aspects of Jesus' crucifixion.
Because the body was supported by outstretched arms, the chest was constantly hyperinflated. Thus, breathing would require significant effort as the victim would have to painfully push himself up on his nailed legs to exhale each breath. Eventually, death came by exhaustion and the inability to breathe out. This process could take days, but if a beating or flogging had occurred previously, death came considerably faster due to the trauma and blood loss.
Because crucifixion could take such a long time to cause death in otherwise healthy people, guards were posted to ensure the victim wasn’t taken down while still alive. In fact, the policy of the Romans (and many other ancient militaries) was that anyone ordered to guard someone forfeited his life if their prisoner escaped. This is even noted in the Bible: after Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, Herod executed the soldiers who were responsible for guarding him (Act 12:19); and when an earthquake opens the prison doors, the jailer nearly committed suicide (to avoid his impending execution) until Paul and Silas intervene (Acts 16:27). Thus, when it came to crucifixion by the Romans, there were no survivors. Roman soldiers were experts at death, since their own lives would’ve been forfeit if someone survived.
However, with such a prolonged, agonizing death to supervise - with victims groaning and begging; bodily fluids flowing; and family members wailing - who could blame the soldiers if they wanted to speed up the process. Any number of interventions could potentially hasten death and allow the guards to get back to their barracks sooner. In the Bible, we see criminals’ legs being broken (Jn 19:32), which would prevent them from breathing and thereby cause death in a matter of minutes. A blade through the torso, neck, or major artery would similarly snuff out any remaining life. If in doubt, run a spear through them - anything to make certain the soldier wouldn’t lose his own life the next day. Once victims finally expired, the corpses were often left on display to deter future crime. Barring customary burial, they would’ve decayed on the cross, exposed to the elements and scavenging animals.
However, as awful as crucifixion was, this is exactly what God calls all believers to do to themselves. Paul describes this very thing in his letter to the church in Galatia.
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Gal 5:24, ESV)
Now, let’s be clear that when the Bible talks about “the flesh” it doesn’t literally mean our physical bodies. Clearly, Paul is not telling us to kill ourselves in the most torturous way possible. Although the Greek word sarx literally means “body” or “flesh” (referring to the physical substance of the living body), biblical writers use it metaphorically to refer to the worldly nature of man, particularly his imperfection and propensity for sin. Thus, our flesh, in the biblical sense, is all the bad stuff about us. So when Paul says those who belong to Christ have crucified the passions and desires of the flesh, he’s talking about all those dark parts of us that make us want to sin.
We also need to clarify that the Bible talks about two distinct crucifixions for every believer. The metaphorical crucifixion of the flesh is different from the crucifixion we shared with Christ when we were saved.
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (Rom 6:6, ESV)
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20, ESV)
When we first gave our lives to Jesus, we symbolically shared in Christ’s death so that we could share in his resurrection. For Jesus, this crucifixion was done to him. We revisit the cross of Christ regularly whenever we participate in communion, but the actual death only needed to be experienced once for all time. However, the second crucifixion, that of our flesh, is something done by us (albeit through the power and leading of the Holy Spirit), and it’s repeated continually throughout our lives. This is what Jesus was getting at when he said,
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mk 8:34, ESV)
Paul even contrasted these two crucifixions in the same passage:
For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God… Therefore put to death what is earthly in you - sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Col 3:3,5, paraphrased)
See the difference? We die with Christ when we’re saved but thereafter have to continually put ourselves to death.
To follow Christ, in a sense, is to behave like a condemned criminal. Our spiritual depravity is no better than Barabbas, the very worst of mankind. As such, we must carry our own cross to Golgotha. Or, if you like, bring our own noose to the gallows. Or carry our own firewood to be burned at the stake. Or draw up the chemicals for our own lethal injection. Crucifixion was simply the flavor of the day in first century Judea. Paul takes this graphic imagery to its logical conclusion, that we not only carry our cross to Golgotha but see that the execution actually takes place. It’s not enough to journey to the place of death, we must also pull the trigger. This is the essence of true repentance, that is, to take our despicable self and put it out of its misery. Or rather our misery.
Unlike all other methods of capital punishment, crucifixion is the most fitting metaphor for what killing our flesh should be like. To be ultimately effective, the death of our sinful natures must be just as horrible as death by crucifixion to be ultimately effective. First, it must be merciless. Just as crucifixion was deemed too awful a death for run-of-the-mill criminals - or for any Roman citizen for that matter - it was only reserved for the very worst offenders. Our sinful nature is not something to be treated with respect or self-pity. It must be a cold-hearted execution. Let’s be real here: our immoral, natural self is the worst part of us - pure evil - and must therefore be mercilessly exterminated at all costs, just like Jesus us to do.
Second, sin must be exposed. Just as cockroaches scatter when the lights are flicked on, those who live in sin hate the shame it creates. Adam and Eve experienced this firsthand after they sinned in Eden.
I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself. (Gen 3:10, ESV)
However, to truly deal with our sin, it must come to the light. Any surgeon will tell you that the success of any procedure depends on exposure. Only under the bright lights of the operating room can the cancer be resected.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (John 3:20-21, ESV)
If sin isn't exposed, it can't be fixed. Being naked can feel incredibly embarrassing, but such vulnerability is essential for repentance.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16, ESV)
When we're honest, revealing those sinful parts of us we hate so much, it encourages others to open up too. And if we all put aside the facade of having it all together, sin would have much less power over us.
Third, the crucifixion of our flesh is painful. In fact, it may be the most difficult thing we ever have to experience. Are we surprised at this? I mean, removing the “fleeting pleasures of sin” (Heb 11:25) from our lives was never going to be a walk in the park, was it? Perhaps this is what Jesus was getting at when he counseled his followers to first count the costs before taking up their cross.
What king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Lk 14:31-33, ESV)
Sin is an all-consuming cancer that must be completely removed from our hearts, however painful the surgery may be. Let’s not be naive that this will be pleasant.
Fourth, putting our flesh to death must be decisive. Every ancient farmer knew that the only way to walk in a straight line was to fix his eyes on a distant point and continually walk towards it. Diverting one’s eyes from the target inevitably led to walking a convoluted path.
No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:62, ESV)
Following Christ will cost us everything. Trying to hold onto our past life of sin - even just a little bit - will send us veering off course and heading toward disaster.
I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! (Rev 3:15-16, NLT)
All or none, that’s what following Christ is all about. No half effort, no holding back, no mercy for the old man (our sinful self. Once we’ve made up our minds, there can be no second-guessing.
Finally, just as physical crucifixion is a long dying process, crucifying our flesh is prolonged. Indeed, it’s lifelong. Even though we receive salvation and have our sins forgiven, no believer ever destroys his foolish sinful nature completely. Even Paul lamented about his propensity to sin,
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:24, ESV)
With our flesh nailed to the cross, we must make every effort to leave it there to die. Jesus himself said this must be a regular occurrence.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Lk 9:23, ESV)
Such a continual effort is analogous to how God’s mercy and grace are perpetually available to us, despite our many failures.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lam 3:22-23, ESV)
So you see, there are two crucifixions for everyone who wants to follow Jesus. And there’s no way around it: crucifixion sucks. It was the most terrible, painful, shameful death Jesus could have ever experienced, and yet he did it - once and for all - so that believers could experience life to the fullest. However, despite our new life, there still remains a part of us to be crucified. The ruthless and uncompromising death sentence of our flesh must be renewed every day. Simply put, our success at living for Christ - that is, the sincerity of our repentance - depends on rejecting the part of us that rejects his lordship. We must crucify our flesh or die trying.
Or rather, keep trying to die.