The most horrific method of execution in the ancient Roman world was crucifixion. It was a method that was so horrible that the most refined Romans wouldn’t even mention it by name. The cross was also a stumbling block for non-believing Jews, as it seemed absurd that the Messiah would come and die in such an ignoble fashion. Christians, however, revere the cross because it is through Christ’s suffering and death that he offered a perfect sacrifice for sin. Through their diligent and prayerful study of Scripture, the early Church fathers discovered several passages that they believed hinted or even foretold that Christ would be crucified. Let’s look at some of the most interesting passages.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Athanasius, and others believed that Deuteronomy 28:66 (LXX) alluded to the crucifixion when it said, “And thy life shall hang before your eyes; thou shalt fear night and day, neither shalt thou trust thy life.’” This verse is found among the covenant curses that fell upon those who broke God’s covenant with Moses. Essentially, it means “your life is in the balance.” Knowing that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6-7), several early Church fathers saw “…thy life shall hang before your eyes,” as an obscure allusion to Christ our life being hung on the cross.
The fathers also saw another cryptic from the prophet Jeremiah. Just as the life of David is in some ways mirrored in the life of Christ, so too the suffering of Jeremiah. During one such passage, where Jeremiah reflects upon those who persecute him, he writes, “Yet I, like a trusting lamb led to slaughter, had not realized that they were hatching plots against me: ‘Let us destroy the tree in its vigor; let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will be spoken no more’” (Jeremiah 10:19). In the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint (or LXX), the line “Let us destroy the tree and its vigor” is translated as “Let us put wood upon his bread…” Since Christ, at the Last Supper took bread and said, “This is my body,” the early fathers understood this passage to mean, “Let us put the wood of the cross upon Christ’s body” therefore alluding to the crucifixion.
The crucifixion was also foreshadowed in the Old Testament as types. For example, Moses mounted a serpent on a pole so that whoever would look upon it would be healed (Numbers 21:9). Christ points to this as a type of his own crucifixion (John 3:13). Noah’s ark was also a type of the cross since it was through the wood of the ark that Noah and his family were saved. Another type of the saving power of the cross is found in Exodus 15:25-26. In this passage, the Israelites encounter the water at Marah, which was too bitter to drink. Moses placed a piece of wood into the water and it was made fresh and sweet so that the Israelites could drink it.
In addition to references to wood, the early fathers also saw references to the wounds of Christ. In Psalms 22:17-19 (LXX), it says “…they pierced my hands and my feet. They counted all my bones; and they observed and looked upon me. They parted my garments among themselves, and cast lots upon my raiment.” Likewise, Zechariah 12:10 says, “…they shall look upon him whom they have pierced.”
Some early fathers also saw the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross being foretold as an plea to the wicked, as in Isaiah 65:2 where God said, “I have stretched out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in evil paths and follow their own thoughts…,” and as a sacrificial act, as when Psalm 141:2 says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!”
These prophecies of the cross vary in strength, but all of them may be helpful for fruitful mediation and prayer on the crucifixion, especially during the upcoming Lenten season.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.