The crucifixion of Christ is mostly understood to have moral, spiritual and religious meanings. The cross is not usually associated with politics. While it is certainly true that in the New Testament the cross does have religious and moral significance, crucifixion was clearly understood and presented as a political act in the gospels.
Living in the modern world, we are far removed from what the cross actually was and what it originally meant to the people for whom it was a real threat. In the Roman empire under which the early Church emerged, crucifixion was a 1ghastly process which the Romans had perfected with horrifying results. It was not only made to inflict maximum agony and kill with frightening efficacy, it was designed to utterly debase the victim, annihilating their very humanity. In the honour-shame cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, the cross was the most ignominious death possible, which is why the New Testament talks about the shame of the cross and how it was scandalous to preach it (Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:23; Hebrews 12:2.) It was a punishment worse than death. 2The cross was so despised that it was used as an insult in the Greco-Roman world.
Apart from being used on slaves, crucifixion was only used against enemies of the imperial government. It was a fate that befell rebels and opponents Rome had crushed as a gruesome reminder of their military power and as a stern warning to all would be enemies that a similar fate awaited them if they dared challenge the might of Rome. 3For example, the six thousand people that survived the famous slave revolt of 73-71 BC led by the Thracian gladiator Spartacus were crucified along a 200 km stretch from Capua to Rome on the Appian Way. 4Since it was so vile, Roman citizens could only be crucified if they committed acts of high treason. So in the ancient Roman world, crucifixion was in no uncertain terms used as a political punishment. Jesus’ crucifixion was also a political sentence.
In all the gospel accounts, the principal charge against Jesus in his trial before the Jewish leaders was that he claimed to be the Messiah, which was the title of the King of Israel. In fact they hung the charge over his head as he hung on the cross (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19-20.) This was an explicitly political claim. Since there was already a king, that is Caesar, Jesus’ own claim to be a king was an act of high treason and therefore punishable by death. Since the Romans had taken over they would not let the Jewish people have their own king. So instead they installed client kings like Herod to serve their agenda. Caesar was Lord and he did not take kindly to rebel kings or even governors in his empire who would allow rebellion to foment. The Jewish leaders did not have the authority to put him to death so they sent him to Pontius Pilate, a representative of their Roman overlords, who could give them the death verdict they wanted.
Jesus was not the only messianic claimant but their fate was all the same if they and their followers were captured alive i.e crucifixion. It was particularly important to execute Jesus because he had gathered a significant following and he made his messianic claims in crowded Jerusalem during Passover, the Jewish festival of liberation. All this religious and nationalistic fervour that God had finally sent his anointed king to deliver his people from pagan oppression and start a new era for the nation could quickly boil over into full blown insurrection as it had happened multiple times in the past.
Jesus’ message and mission did not suddenly become political during his trial. It had been political all along. The gospel he preached was the kingdom of God was near. As I explained in another post, the word “gospel” was actually the term for favourable royal news. Kingdom is itself another political term. If God’s rule over Israel was imminent, it meant Roman rule was going to be overthrown. During his itinerant ministry throughout Israel he preached God was about to take charge, hinting through his teaching and prophetic signs that God had chosen him to rule his kingdom in fulfilment of Israel’s scriptures.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the final time he stopped preaching God’s kingdom was near because he was there to finally establish it on earth. We can see this from Jesus’ actions. I explained in another post that in their cultural context, riding into the capital on a donkey with the crowds hailing you as the King of Israel was actually a coronation procession (John 12:12-15.) He was fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy of how the Messiah will finally come (Zechariah 9:9.) He had come as David’s heir to sit on his throne.
From these and other things it was clear Jesus’ activity, particularly in Jerusalem was overtly political. However, he did not do politics the way it was and still is done. In his famous conversation with Pilate, after confirming that he indeed was the King of the Jews, he said,
“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
– John 18:36 ESV
All messianic revolutionaries before and after Jesus were committed to the use of violent force, something the Romans were very good at. In fact, all human government in the end rests on the use of violence. Jesus could have gone that route but he did not. Instead of calling on his followers to rescue him and fight Rome, he sacrificed himself for them and took the full brunt of Rome’s deadly power. The reason why Pilate initially wanted to let him go was because Jesus’ movement was not about the use of force yet it was oddly political anyway because their allegiance ultimately lay with someone other than Caesar. They failed to understand what this meant and responded the only way they knew how: destroy all opposition, even potential opposition.
Jesus had come into Jerusalem to be crowned as king yet he was crucified as a failed rebel. Instead of being honoured he suffered the most shameful fate possible. However, this was exactly how Jesus rose to power. God’s kingdom did not come through strength but weakness. The Philippian hymn beautifully captures the paradoxical nature of Christ’s rule. How could someone who suffered a “slave’s death” now be Lord of all? This is what made the gospel so ridiculous yet it was true because God raised Jesus from dead. The power of the state, which is fundamentally the power of death, had been nullified in Christ’s resurrection so a new political reality had emerged. The cross revolutionises what power itself is.
Jesus’ resurrection was divine vindication of his messianic claims. He was indeed King of the Jews. God then exalted him to his right hand as Lord. This is why Jesus is called both Lord and Christ because God has not only made him the king of Israel but king of the entire world. The Church is the group of people who have professed loyalty to this king so the church must be recognised as a political entity but one like no other. The word Greek word for church “ekklesia” was actually a political term for the public gathering of the city assembly.
Jesus famously taught his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven. The church is the start of this happening. Paul describes the church as a heavenly colony on earth. It is clear that among other things that in the New Testament the Church was conceived as a polity, a new nation constituted in a radical new way that did not fit any existing political categories or any since (1 Peter 2:9-10.) The Church is not defined by geography, ethnicity, status, wealth, gender, strength or intelligence. Moreover, it is a group of people who do not fear death, whose allegiance does not ultimately lie with any earthly power, and this upsets any political system of human origin. Their example is a king who gave his life freely for his people and commands his followers to do the same for one another.
1Rutledge, F., The Crucifixion: Understanding the death of Jesus Christ, pp. 90-93, Eerdmans, 2015.
2Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the ancient world and the folly of the message of the cross, p. 9, Fortress Press, 1977.
4Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the ancient world and the folly of the message of the cross, p. 39, Fortress Press, 1977.