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Cross (Cross-Bearing)

See also Cross

CROSS (CROSS-BEARING) (σταυρός, G5089, pale, stake, cross).


The word stauros comes from the Gr. verb histēmi (root sta), “to stand,” and originally meant an “upright pointed stake” or “pale.” Criminals were either tied to or impaled upon it. Stauros in the NT, however, apparently was a pole sunk into the ground with a cross-bar fastened to it giving it a “T” shape. Often the word “cross” referred only to the cross-bar.

Death by crucifixion originated somewhere in the E. Alexander the Great seems to have learned of it from the Persians. Rome borrowed the idea from the Phoenicians through Carthage, and perfected it as a means of capital punishment.

The Romans reserved crucifixion, however, for slaves, robbers, assassins, and the like, or for rebellious provincials. Only rarely were Rom. citizens subjected to this kind of treatment (Cicero, In Ver. 1. 5. 66). The tradition, therefore, which relates the beheading of Paul, and Peter’s crucifixion accords well with this distinction between peoples.

Upon receiving the sentence of death the condemned person was flogged with a leather whip loaded with metal or bone so cruelly that it became known as the intermediate death. He was then required to shoulder the crossbar upon which he was to be extended and carry it to the place of his crucifixion (Plutarch, De Ser. Num. Vind. 9.554A). He wore about his neck a placard naming his crime. At the execution site he was stripped and tied or nailed to the crossbar, which then was fastened to an upright post. A projecting peg gave the condemned a place to sit to relieve the strain on his arms. Death, therefore, was slow in coming, except when it was hurried by soldiers breaking the crucified man’s legs (John 19:31).

According to Josephus crucifixion in Pal. was a most common sight (Antiq. 17. 10. 10; 20. 5. 2; Wars, 2. 12. 6, 13. 2, 14. 9; 5. 11. 1). The fact that two robbers were crucified with Jesus in Jerusalem tends to confirm this claim.

The Jewish nation, unlike the Rom., did not crucify living persons. Frequently, however, they did suspend the bodies of the executed upon a tree to intensify their punishment and to expose them to public shame (Num 25:4; Josh 10:26; 1 Sam 31:10). Men thus hanged were considered accursed by God (Deut 21:22, 23).

Crucifixion, therefore, was abhorrent to the Jew (1 Cor 1:23; Gal 3:13), but no less so to the Rom. Cicero wrote: “Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears” (Pro Rab. 5).

Jesus’ cross.

Figuratively Jesus’ cross became the mark of God’s redemptive action in history. It was symbolic of the means God employed for releasing into this world a power for good sufficiently strong to save men (1 Cor 1:18), to break down otherwise insurmountable barriers between man and man, thus making it possible for him to live at one with his brother (Eph 2:16), to bring everything back into peace and harmony with God (Col 1:20), to effect for mankind forgiveness of sins and a release from that which continually made him feel his guilt (2:14), and to free him forever from the cosmic forces of evil which everywhere surrounded him (2:15).

Since the cross was reserved for criminals and those accursed by God (see above), it symbolized, too, the suffering, shame and humiliation Jesus endured (Heb 12:2) for the human race, indicating the depths to which He was willing to go to lift up the worst and lowest of men.

Jesus’ cross also stood as the symbol of God’s unique purpose for Him. That is to say, since dying was planned by God as Jesus’ supreme mission (Acts 2:23; cf. Matt 16:21 with 20:18, 19 and John 18:11), the cross, therefore, becomes a metonym for mission, a symbol both of the divine will for Jesus, and Jesus’ voluntary submission to that will (Mark 14:36; Phil 2:8).

The Christian’s cross: crossbearing.

The cross was used also of the followers of Jesus, both literally and metaphorically. Because crucifixion was a frequent occurrence, and because the spectacle of condemned men carrying their crosses to the place of execution was common, Jesus’ words about taking up the cross and following Him (Matt 16:24; cf. John 12:26) must first of all have been interpreted literally. These words must have been understood as a prediction of the same physical means of death for Jesus’ followers as for Him (Matt 23:34). This prediction was soon fulfilled in the early years of the Church’s history (cf. the tradition about Peter’s crucifixion and see also Ignatius, Rom. 5.3; Hermas, Vis. 3.2.1).

Jesus also interpreted metaphorically the cross His followers must bear. It was for Him the symbol of their self-sacrifice: “If any man wills to come after me,” He said, “let him deny (perhaps, ‘lose sight of’) himself, and take up his cross (Luke adds, ‘daily’), and [continually] follow me” (Mark 8:34-36). “To bear the cross,” therefore, means a continuing loyalty to Christ along with a continuing death to self. It means “we must refuse, abandon, deny self altogether as a ruling or determining or originating element in us. It is to be no longer the regent of our action. We are no more to think ‘What should I like to do?’ but ‘What would the Living One have me do?’” (George MacDonald).

If in the experience of Jesus the cross was a metonym for His mission, there is a sense then in which the cross also stands for that mission in life to which the Christian has been called. “To bear the cross,” therefore, means further that the Christian is called upon to imitate Jesus’ commitment to doing that particular task assigned him by God and doing it completely (Luke 14:27, noting esp. the words “his own cross”; cf. John 17:4). The cross is a symbol, then, of life lived under Christian discipline, marked by voluntary obedience to the will of God.

The cross is also a symbol of the shame and humiliation which the Christian must be prepared to endure for the sake of Christ (Heb 12:2 with 13:12, 13; cf. also Ign. Trall. 11:2: Hermas, Vis. 3. 2. 1). It is a symbol, further, of the destruction of everything which interposes itself between man and God, whether it be an institutionalized religion, as in the case of Paul (Gal 6:14), or material things, as in the case of Ignatius (Rom 7:2), or whatever else there might be. The cross, too, is a symbol of that mystical union of the Christian with Christ, wherein one’s old evil impulses are crucified with Christ, and new desires and powers are released in his life (Gal 2:19b, 20; Rom 6:6).

The Christian’s cross is always a voluntary thing. Unlike the convict he never is compelled to carry it: “If any man wills to do so,” Jesus said (Mark 8:34). Nor is there ever any hint that the Christian, like Christ, by bearing his cross acts redemptively or becomes accursed in behalf of others or thereby atones for another’s sins. Yet there is a sense in which the Christian who bears the cross fills up (supplements) on his part the things lacking of the afflictions of Christ (Col 1:24), i.e. by continued acts of self-denial on the part of successive individuals through the years in the interest of God and humanity, the work which Christ began continues even to the present.


H. Cremer, Biblico-Theological Lexicon of NT Greek (1892); F. W. Dillistone, Jesus Christ and His Cross (1953); L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1955); J. Schneider, σταυρός, G5089, in G. Kittel, ed., Theologisches Wörterbuch zum NT (1962); Theological Dictionary of the NT, tr. and ed. by G. W. Bromiley (1971).