The Two Crucifixions of Every Believer
D. B. Ryen
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
- Galatians 5:24, ESV
Crucifixion would be a nasty way to die. Back in ancient times, it was performed by affixing the victim to a wooden cross for an excruciating (literally “out of the cross”), drawn-out death. As a particularly torturous method of execution, crucifixion was employed throughout ancient history - specifically during the Assyrian, Median, Persian and Greek empires - as a means of capital punishment. Similarly, the Romans used it as their most severe form of execution, but because it was considered too agonizing and disgraceful, no Roman citizen could be crucified. Reading between the lines, the Bible seems to suggest that 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); John called him a thief (Jn 18:40). Chances are he was all of the above, possibly a leading member of the Zealots, who were some of the earliest recorded terrorists. Barabbas - the very worst type of criminal - was condemned to be crucified, and he certainly would have if Jesus hadn’t taken his place.
Exactly what the cross looked like or how its victim was nailed 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 crucified man were found in Jerusalem. Large spikes had been driven from the sides through his heel bones, but his wrist bones were intact, suggesting spikes had been driven through the space in 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 naked. Because the body was supported by outstretched arms, breathing would require significant effort (hyperinflation of the chest would inhibit breathing out) 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. This process could take days in otherwise healthy people, but if a beating or whipping had occurred previously, death could come considerably faster due to the trauma and blood loss.
Because crucifixion could take such a long time to cause death, 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 a prisoner forfeited his life if their charge escaped. This is even noted in the Bible: after Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, Herod executes the soldiers who were responsible for guarding him (Act 12:19); and when an earthquake opens the prison doors, the jailer nearly commits 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 anyone survived.
However, with such a prolonged, agonizing death to supervise - victims groaning and begging; bodily fluids flowing; family members wailing - who could blame the soldiers if they wanted to speed up the process a bit. Any number of interventions could potentially hasten death and allow the guards to get back to their barracks. 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 weather and scavenging animals.
Crucifixion was deemed so terrible that it was abolished by the Roman emperor Constantine in 337 AD upon his conversion to Christianity. Although the cross originally represented guilt, punishment, and shame, it became a sacred symbol of Christianity and was therefore no longer used for execution.
However, as awful as crucifixion could be, this is exactly what God calls all believers to do to themselves. In fact, Paul notes 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 do the wrong thing.
We also need to clarify that the Bible talks about two distinct crucifixions that every believer experiences. The metaphorical crucifixion of the flesh is different from the crucifixion we shared with Christ when we were saved.
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)
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)
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 (and for us), 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, this second crucifixion, that of our flesh, is something done by us (albeit through the power and leading of the Holy Spirit), and it’s done 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 - like Barabbas, the very worst of mankind - and carry his own cross to Golgotha. Or, if you like, bring his own noose to the gallows. Or carry his own firewood to be burned at the stake. Or draw up the chemicals for his own lethal injection. Crucifixion was simply the flavor of the day in first century Judea. Paul simply takes this graphic imagery to its logical conclusion, that we not only carry our cross to Golgotha but see that the execution 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.
However, unlike all those other methods of capital punishment, crucifixion is the most fitting metaphor for what killing our flesh should be like. Simply put, 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 sinful self is the worst part of us - pure evil - and must therefore be mercilessly exterminated at all costs, as Jesus taught.
Second, the crucifixion of our flesh will be 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 - however painful the surgery may be - from our hearts. Let’s not be naive that this will be a pleasant process.
Third, 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 efforts, no holding back, no mercy for the old man (our sinful self) on the cross. 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 metaphorical 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)
Yep, 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 by us. The ruthless and uncompromising execution 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.
© D. B. Ryen Incorporated, January 2023.