You and I have no choice regarding death. Should the Lord tarry, we will all take our final breath and with but few exceptions, will not have the choice of when or where that might be. That is a sobering thought that we all must learn to face. But in the case of Jesus, there was a choice. The previous verses outlined the divinity of Christ that included His eternal nature. As One who was truly God and thus eternal, the termination of life was totally foreign to the divine nature.
He would even taste our death, the consequence of our sin, though he was sinless. Our deaths satisfy God’s law and justice; but then God the Son takes upon Himself sin’s consequence of death. In His coming to earth with all the sacrifice that entailed, there was yet more. Though sinless, He must die the death of sinners. While the limitation of the human body was alien to the nature of God how much more must this have been to the author of life! His loving obedience was absolute, proven by making the choice to die. Humanity, being sinful and separated from God, has no choice but to die. Obedience in this regard is not an option. But God the Son’s humility is such that, though he could choose to justly impose it, he instead chooses to obey it in our place.
Greater than this was not only that He chose to die, but He chose how and when that was to happen. How was what stunned both the Jew and the Gentile. No crueler and more painful death was known to humankind than crucifixion. Although crucifixion had existed for hundreds of years, the cold calculation of the Romans had perfected it so that it exacted supreme agony while prolonging it to the limits the body could endure, inflicting the victim with the most extreme humiliation. So fearsome was crucifixion that Roman citizens could not by law be crucified regardless of the crime they committed. It was reserved for outsiders, for career criminals, for the traitor and the slave. This is why Paul emphasized the degree of Christ’s obedience: “obedient unto death, even the death on a cross.”
The horror of the cross was not lost on the early Christians. Their early symbol of their faith was primarily a fish, not a cross. Indeed that first generation of Christians would have been shocked that so cruel a means of execution would in any way find a place of honor. They would be even more surprised at what we have done to the cross by miniaturizing it, casting it in gold, encrusting it with jewels and smoothing all the splinters away. For a cross to be worn as jewelry would be as shocking to them as it would be for us to encounter someone in our day wearing a guillotine necklace, or executioner axe earrings, or encountering a hangman’s noose on a worship table. A cross was the worst form of punishment that could be mustered. Although there is certainly nothing wrong with wearing crosses as jewelry, especially if it is meant to be a witness, we would do well to ponder the offensive nature of this form of execution to all who lived in the days of Jesus.
Paul’s point in all of this is that because the plight of humanity was clearly hopeless, the solution must be one so grand, so expansive that nothing less would be enough. And so Jesus came, not as the new Caesar but as a tiny boy, not in Rome or Athens but in Bethlehem, not schooled at the feet of the most brilliant philosophers but by meditating in a carpenter’s shop after attending a little synagogue in the backwater town of Nazareth.
His fame would not come on the field of battle with troops shouting His name as he charged against the enemy. but by leprous hands that stretched out for healing and blind eyes that sought to view Him in their first sight. It was down, down, down to the depths of a slave and a slave’s service. And when death came, it would be preceded by betrayal, accentuated by the abandonment of His friends, punctuated by a thorny crown pushed upon His brow. He would be led to the most public place, not to be mourned as much as mocked. And the cross. No person had been more unjustly or cruelly betrayed by the ones He came to save nor suffer more exquisitely as His body was wracked in agony and the Father turned His back on Him. The author and creator of all life, “obedient unto death, even the death on the cross.”
From Joy Revealed: a Devotional Study in Philippians