“[Crucifixion] was a death that many others had also suffered. In fact, it was an event so common in the first-century Roman world that Jesus’s crucifixion almost passed unnoticed. For the soldiers who carried it out, it was an unexceptional part of their routine. As for the Jewish leaders who had opposed Christ, it was a fitting end to their problem. Soon, they were back to business as usual. And although the resurrection was to happen shortly thereafter, and although the disciples were to be emboldened in their preaching, and although the Holy Spirit was to authenticate what they said by miracles, the historians of that day also missed the significance of this event.
There is a distinction between the crucifixion and the cross. The former was a particularly barbaric way of carrying out an execution, and it was the method of execution that Jesus endured. The latter, as the New Testament speaks of it, has to do with the mysterious exchange that took place in Christ’s death, an exchange of our sin for His righteousness. It was there that our judgment fell on the One who is also our Judge. Indeed, He who had made all of creation was dishonored in the very creation He had made. And yet, through this dark moment, this fierce judgment, through this dishonor, there now shines the light of God’s triumph over sin, death, and the Devil. And in this moment, this moment of Jesus’s judgment-death, God was revealed in His holy-love as nowhere else.
This, however, was not seen from the outside. Besides Christ’s cry of dereliction—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)—there was little to indicate what was really happening. For that we need to think back to the Old Testament with its prophetic foretelling of the cross and to Jesus’s own expressed understanding of it, and we need to look on to the apostles for their more complete exposition of it. Without this, the meaning of Christ’s death is lost on us. We would see the execution but, without God’s explicating revelation, it would remain mute. It would be a death like any other death except for its disgrace. God must interpret His own actions, and so He has. Without this, we too are mute.
At the cross we encounter something no picture can tell. Its reality cannot be displayed. Even the eyewitnesses of the cross, those who saw it all unfold, walked away ignorant that day, needing words to explain what had happened there. When we see the crucifixion, our eyes see excruciating physical suffering; when we read about the cross, our hearts recoil at soul-crushing spiritual suffering. When we see the crucifixion, our eyes see soldiers punishing an innocent man; when we read about the cross, our minds grapple with God the Father pouring out His wrath upon His sinless Son. When we see the crucifixion, we see a man stripped naked and slowly dying; when we read about the cross we see Christ Jesus clothed in our unrighteousness. When it comes to understanding the cross, only words will do, only words are sufficient.
That is why dramatic presentations of Christ’s death, such as on TV and in movies, so often miss the point. They give us the crucifixion, not the cross. They show the horrifying circumstances of His death. These circumstances may be shown accurately. But this can take us only so far. It leaves us with only a biographical Christ, who may be interesting, but not with the eternal Christ whom we need for our salvation. The crucifixion without the cross is an incomplete picture, a half-told story. What is omitted is the meaning of the event. We do not carry this meaning within ourselves, nor can we find it in this world. What eludes us is something we have to be given by God Himself, for only He can say what was happening within the Godhead as Christ was killed and, in His death, atoned for our sin. This is indispensable to the meaning of Christian faith. Without it, Christ’s death is only a martyrdom and Christian faith is just a nice, moral religion but one that is neither unique nor uniquely true. The cross of Christ is not less than the crucifixion, but it is certainly far, far more.”
-David Wells, from “God in the Whirlwind”