Why did Jesus die on a Roman cross?
The cross was a Roman invention for cruel torture and slow execution of state criminals and foreign rebels. It was intensely feared in all regions of Roman domination.
There is no provision in the criminal law codes of Israel for execution by hanging on a cross. The Law of Moses prescribes stoning for criminals in Israel. Murderers, as well as all for whom capital punishment is required, were to die by stoning at the hands of the community. In especially heinous crimes, the executed criminal would afterwards be hanged on a tree, but the body must be taken down by sunset. They did not hang criminals “by the neck until dead” as in the American West. A foreign enemy could be slain with a sword and sometimes also then hanged on a tree to be displayed until sunset. No other form of execution is mentioned.
How did Jesus’ death on a Roman cross fulfill God’s Law?
Let’s deal first with a more basic question. Why did Jesus have to die? There are many facets to the answer to this question. For now we’ll aim at understanding the Laws of Sacrifice for Sin. We find that Leviticus 4 delineates sin offerings according to the social position of the sinner. For example, a common person was to bring a female kid of the goats. A ruler of the people must bring a male kid of the goats. A priest who sins must bring a young bullock. If the whole congregation sins, they must offer a young bullock, in the same way as a priest who sins.
In each sin offering, except one, the sinner must lay hands on the head of the victim, i.e. kid or bullock, and then the sinner slays the animal whose blood is offered on the altar. The exception is for the situation in which the whole congregation has sinned. In this case, Leviticus 4 designates no one to slay the victim. We are left to find a precedent to discover who must slay this victim for the whole congregation.
In Leviticus 8, Moses is performing the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests. For a sin offering Moses brings a bullock. The priests lay hands on the head of the bullock, and Moses slays the bullock continuing according to the previous prescription for the sin offering in Leviticus 4.
Moses was not a priest. He was the civil leader and the spiritual leader of Israel. The precedent seems to be that when a group sins, as opposed to an individual, the highest authority must slay the victim.
The order is clear according to Leviticus 4:15.
“And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands upon the head of the bullock before the LORD:
and the bullock shall be killed before the LORD.”
Now we have one facet of the answer to our second question,
“According to the Law of Sacrifice for Sin, why did Jesus have to die?”
He died as the victim in the case when the whole congregation sins. Jesus himself in the Gospels, as well as the Apostles in Acts, give ample witness to his being the offering for the whole congregation.
This is how Jesus could prophesy that “the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed,” Mark 8:31. In fact, the elders did lay their hands on Jesus, and they took him to Pilate. “When the morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death: And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor.” Matthew 27:1-2
Jesus knew that they had to reject him because they had to turn him over to the governing authorities to be slain. They had to “lay hands upon” him. Their laying hands upon him imparted their sins and, representatively, the sins of all the people upon Jesus as their victim. As the Victim, Jesus could forgive the sin. Jesus fulfilled both the role of the victim and of the priest who forgives.
God’s Law could not execute the Holy Son of God; Roman law did that.
It was a Roman cross because God’s Law has no such provision for execution.
It was a Roman cross because Rome was the highest civil government over Israel at the time, and the highest authority must slay the victim of the sin offering when the whole congregation sins.
There are many references to the necessity for the elders to reject the Messiah. They had to be responsible for his death in order for his forgiveness to apply to them and to all the world as the “whole congregation”.
Matthew 16:21; 17:22; Mark 8:31; 10:33; Luke 9:22; 18:31; 24:7; 24:20
Acts 2:3; 3:17; 4:10; 5:30;7:52; 10:39; 13:27