Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. (Matt. 27:27-31 ESV)
Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Christ died a sacrificial death, His life for ours, as our substitution. In the Old Testament sacrifices the man offering the animal for his sins would lay his hands on the animal, identifying with it, and the action communicated that this animal was taking his place. In a similar way, we must ‘lay hands’ on Jesus to identify with Him for all to know, that we believe He died for us – that He died for me.
The Bible says that without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22). The death of Christ for our sins was necessary for our salvation. “He who knew no sin became sin for us that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ was “delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).
Yet, why the cross? Why did God choose such an ignoble, painful, suffering way for Christ to die? The sacrificial animals in the Old Testament had their lives taken, their blood shed, quickly – as close to painlessly as the culture and the time would permit. It would be unthinkable for a sacrificial lamb In the Old Testament to be nailed to a cross and left to hang in the heat of the day for hours until he died – even more unthinkable that it would be scourged, whipped and ridiculed and a crown of thorns crushed down on its brow.
There is no definitive answer given in scripture for this question, except to say that it was done according to the will of God – “It pleased the LORD to bruise him” (Isa. 53:10), is the only answer we receive. But if I were to pose my own answer, the collection of my own thoughts and experiences and studies, the reason God chose the cross is that it pictures for us, like nothing else could, the cost of our redemption. Christ could have been killed with much less pain and His death would still be the payment for our sins, but the agony of the cross pictures for us the what it took for God to forgive us.
The physical suffering and the heart of holy God
The agony of the Son on the cross pictures the agony of God for sinners. There was physical suffering on the cross, but there was an even greater pain in the Godhead itself. For the one and only time in history God the Son became sin, and God the Father turned His back on Him, when Christ became the sin of the world. The Godhead was split – such a thing seems impossible, as if God was at war with Himself – and, I suppose, it would have been the type of conflict that would have destroyed all of creation were it not for the fact that there was complete agreement between them for the cross to happen.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8 ESV)
Other scriptures and symbols
There were purposes in God choosing the cross that we can understand. I recommend an article on God.net: “Why Did God Choose the Cross?” We can see the striking demonstration of God’s love for us. We see also a parallel in scripture to Christ being lifted up like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (John 3:14-15). We see the cross used as an example of discipleship, of complete surrender to Christ – we are to take up our cross daily to follow after Christ (Luke 9:23). The cross also revealed the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of humanity that both Jews and Gentiles were complicit in the public execution of Christ (Acts 2:23). And a public death, even one grotesquely humiliating and painful, was essential to verify Christ’s death, and thereby the miracle of His resurrection.
The cross commends God’s love to us
But I believe the heart of it all, in the mind of God, was to give us an unparalleled picture of His love for us. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The word in the original sunistemi means “commends” and not only “demonstrates.” The cross was a demonstration but more than just that. It was also and especially a recommendation for a God like our God, who loves like He loves.
Is it easy for God to forgive?
A university student Bible study I was leading years ago, when I was working with students, asked the question: “Is it easy for God to forgive sin?” It engendered very interesting discussions. The first response was, “Sure. God can forgive all the time.” But the more thoughtful answers went to the cross, and saw the length to which God went to offer forgiveness. We forgive usually on the basis that we are not perfect either, but God, who is perfect and completely holy, can only forgive on the basis that He Himself has made atonement for the sinner. The answer is that it is incredibly difficult for God to forgive – it took the death of Christ.
Look at the cross afresh and consider the pain that God endured for your sins to be forgiven. See also the great redemption to which this points. God is redeeming the world – not so that we might be better people, but so that we might become perfect in Him. And knowing the cost of His love for us, at least knowing in part, is what God uses to work true repentance into our lives and our hearts. He will only be satisfied when we are fully converted – in heart and mind.